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The annual open enrollment period – the three-month window during which Montanans can apply for, change or renew their health insurance coverage for 2015 – is here. And with an open enrollment season that is only half as long as last year’s, the time to act is now.

If you are one of the 36,000 Montanans who signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act last year, your plan is set up for automatic renewal: something consumer advocates emphasize should only be used as a last resort. Before you accept that renewal, you should check and see if your options have changed, as you may miss out on lower-premium options now available through the exchange, or you could get stuck with an outdated or incorrect subsidy if your income has changed in the past year.

Time is of the essence given this year’s shortened enrollment window. And for individuals who want to enroll in a new or different plan, and who want their coverage to take effect Jan. 1, 2015, the enrollment deadline to avoid a lapse in coverage is even earlier: Dec. 15, 2014.

Doing some simple research and due diligence can help consumers avoid some of the headaches, hassles and confusion that many experienced with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act last year. There are a number of public, private, online and offline resources available to consumers, all intended to help make navigating the waters of open enrollment a simple and streamlined process.

One great resource to begin the process is the federal government’s online marketplace at HealthCare.gov, which serves as a comprehensive planning and enrollment tool for individuals, families and small businesses. HealthCare.gov allows consumers to research available options, compare coverage plans and pricing, and ultimately renew their coverage, switch plans or enroll in a new plan. The Montana Commissioner of Insurance and Securities’ website (montanahealthanswers.com) can also help cut through the confusion and provide answers.

Another resource is the informational community meetings conducted by insurance providers, such as the Get Out, Get Covered tour offered by PacificSource Health Plans. These and other educational sessions give consumers the opportunity to learn about the options available to them in the marketplace, meet face-to-face with independent insurance agents and insurance company representatives, ask questions about individual plans and coverage, and ultimately make informed decisions about which health insurance plan is right for them.

Many insurance providers also offer more traditional services such as live phone support for individuals who cannot attend community meetings, or who cannot find answers to their specific questions at HealthCare.gov or through other online resources. These “Coverage Advisors,” as they are known at PacificSource, are available during normal business hours to answer questions, compare plans and benefits, and assist with the enrollment process. And of course, consumers can always contact their insurance agent with questions and to obtain additional assistance.

These and other resources are valuable tools in helping individuals answer critical questions related to the Affordable Care Act and their insurance options, including why they need health insurance in the first place, what the plans cover, how much they cost, when and how to enroll, available tax credits and other financial assistance, and special considerations based on individual needs and circumstances.

Regardless of whether you have previously purchased health insurance through the exchange, or are applying for health insurance for the first time, it’s time to act now. And with the hectic pace of the upcoming holiday season, the open enrollment period is bound to pass quickly. Do your research, and renew, switch or enroll in health insurance today.

Todd Lovshin is vice president and Montana regional director of PacificSource Health Plans. 

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