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It’s not too late to sign up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. But soon, it will be.

This year’s open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act or ACA, also known as “Obama Care,” expires on Dec. 15. After that date, enrollments will continue only for those who qualify for the special enrollment period, which continues throughout the year.

You could be eligible, according to the healthcare.gov website, if “you have a qualifying life event, like having a baby, getting married, or losing minimal essential coverage.” Additional qualifying life events include divorce, change in citizenship status, adoption, release from incarceration, moving, or aging off of a parent’s health insurance plan.

But for the next few days, everybody potentially qualifies, if their annual income is between 100 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level. Coverage under the ACA is available regardless of pre-existing conditions, and allows children to stay on their parents’ plans up to age 26, and prevents insurers from arbitrarily canceling policies.

If you haven’t heard about this year’s open enrollment period, it’s not surprising. The timeframe was slashed from previous years, and funds to promote the ACA were severely reduced. The Health Planning Council of Southwest Florida, which administers ACA enrollments in the area, saw its budget cut approximately 80 percent, said Certified Navigator Mokina Castro.

“We have six navigators to cover the entire area, and some are part-time,” she said, at the Golden Gate library branch where she was visiting to help potential customers sign up for the program. “We used to have 16.”

The Health Planning Council covers Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties. Navigators made four trips to Collier County during the open enrollment period, keeping appointments with those seeking help to understand the options available, but the last visit was on Dec. 7, so at this point, signing up for coverage under the act means doing it by computer, over the phone – or both together – or making a trip to Fort Myers. That is the main office, although the program also has additional offices, not including one in Collier County.

“Mokina has been a great help in figuring out my options,” said Cynthia Maddock to Castro, sitting with the navigator at the Golden Gate library branch. “I can’t imagine how people do this without a navigator. “It’s overwhelming – all the options and choices. I don’t know how people do it without someone like you.”

One way in which the universe of choices is limited is the single company from which to choose. Florida Blue is the sole provider offering ACA coverage in Southwest Florida. But there are multiple options, with different premiums, deductibles, and maximum out-of-pocket costs to consider, as well as levels of coverage.

Despite the shorter enrollment window, signups are not expected to drop significantly, said Health Planning Council of Southwest Florida CEO Ed Houck.

“This is the shortest open enrollment period we’ve had in six years, but I don’t think we’ll see the numbers go down markedly,” he said. “We have been incredibly busy talking to people and signing them up.”

For the first four weeks of the open enrollment period from Nov. 1 to 24, Florida consumers selected 622,664 plans through the official Healthcare.gov website, reported the South Florida SunSentinel, according to newly released figures from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, versus 626,144 last year, when they had one additional day to sign up.

The .06 percent decline is negligible, especially compared to other states such as Virginia with a 39 percent decline, Maine and West Virginia with 26 percent drops, and Louisiana and Pennsylvania with 25 percent fewer enrollments.

In Southwest Florida, to make an appointment for an appointment with a healthcare navigator, call the Health Planning Council at 866-547-2793. To view available ACA healthcare plans for this area, go online to www.EnrollSWFL.com.

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