"There is a lot of confusion," said Anna Causey, vice president of Combined Insurance Services Inc., a Pensacola, Fla.-based benefits broker.
Some people mistakenly believe they have until Dec. 31 to enroll in a plan that takes effect on Jan. 1, Causey said. Others don't realize they could pay a federal tax penalty if they don't have health insurance in place by March 31, she said.
Under the Affordable Care Act, most adults will pay a $95 penalty -- or 1 percent of income -- in 2014 if they don't have health insurance coverage. The penalty rises to $695 -- or 2 percent of income -- by 2016.
To avoid the penalty, people must enroll in a plan by Feb. 15 or qualify for an exemption from the penalty, Causey said.
If you're in the market for health insurance, here are some key dates to keep in mind:
What's the latest I can enroll in coverage for Jan. 1?
Consumers shopping on HealthCare.gov, the federal portal serving individuals in 36 states, originally had until 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, Dec. 23, to enroll if they want coverage to take effect on the first day of the new year. That was extended by 24 hours and now is extended further for those people who had problems signing up at HealthCare.gov.
What if I enroll through my state health insurance exchange?
Deadlines for Jan. 1 coverage may differ in states that operate their own health exchanges.
Health insurers in Maryland, for instance, have agreed to extend the sign-up deadline through Dec. 27, state officials announced Tuesday. Consumers must pay their premiums by Jan. 15, the officials said.
Make sure to check with your state health exchange.
Can I enroll after Jan. 1?
Open enrollment for 2014 runs through March 31. If you buy coverage, say, on Feb. 10, it won't kick in until March 1. If you wait until March 31, your policy will take effect May 1.
There is no deadline for signing up for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program.
If I enrolled in a private health-exchange plan by Dec. 23, when is my premium due?
Recently, the federal government directed insurers to accept payment by Dec. 31 and encouraged health plans to push the deadline further.
Consumers who signed up by Dec. 23 and pay the first month's premium by Jan. 10 will have coverage on Jan. 1, the industry group America's Health Insurance Plans announced last week.
However, the federal government cautions that not all health insurers are extending the payment deadline, and some may require payment on or before Dec. 31, 2013.
"Once you've enrolled, check with your plan that they've received your enrollment and what is the premium payment deadline and how do you go about paying your first month's premium," Fish-Parcham advised.