You might have missed that big Obamacare enrollment deadline you heard about last week — but there's a good chance you can still sign up for an Obamacare plan.
Nearly half of the U.S. population lives in an area where the final deadline for signing up for Obamacare has yet to hit, or where there are special exceptions to the deadline for this month.
But widespread confusion about deadlines for selecting an individual insurance plan this year is putting people at risk of missing out on a last chance of getting health coverage for 2018.
"The vast majority of people did not know the deadlines in their state," said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a leading health policy research group.
That confusion is understandable, since there's no single deadline this sign-up season in the entire United States, and because the deadline in large areas of the country was cut in half from last season.
But nine states and the District of Columbia, which all run their own Obamacare marketplaces, have separate upcoming deadlines, falling between this Friday and Jan. 31.
"Oh, it's messy!" said Charles Gaba, who runs the Obamacare tracking site ACASignups.net, and who in recent days has posted a flurry of news updates about areas where people can still enroll.
Gaba has estimated that about 49 percent of the U.S. population lives in an area where the final sign-up deadline has yet to pass for 2018 coverage or where residents can sign up outside of a passed deadline.
But he said federal health officials could have done a much better job at alerting people in many areas to their eligibility for signing up outside of an earlier deadline.
The Kaiser Family Foundation published an updated map on the deadlines Tuesday afternoon, reflecting new information.
Last Friday was the deadline for signing up for individual health plans sold on HealthCare.gov, the federally run exchange that serves residents of 39 states.
Two other states that have their own marketplaces, Idaho and Vermont, likewise had last Friday as their cutoff date for enrolling in plans, with coverage beginning New Year's Day.
Typically, after an open enrollment deadline passes, people would not be able to sign up for coverage until next fall for 2019 plans unless they had a qualifying life event such as a marriage, birth of a child or loss of insurance coverage. The open enrollment window was cut in half from last year's by the Trump administration.
But — and it is a very, very big 'but' — a number of HealthCare.gov states and areas of such states have been granted a special enrollment period this year because of hurricanes and other weather-related effects in those areas.
Two of the biggest states in terms of Obamacare sign-up numbers — Florida and Texas — are both subject to the special enrollment periods related to hurricanes.
Residents in areas with special enrollment periods who were affected by the storms have until Dec. 31 to sign up for Obamacare plans that take effect the following day, although they have to start the enrollment process by first phoning HealthCare.gov's call center.
The special enrollment periods apply to 53 counties in Texas, including Dallas and a large section of the eastern part of the state, as well as all of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and parts of Louisiana and Mississippi. And in Maine, residents affected by severe windstorms also are eligible for the later deadline.
Pollitz said that she has been told that 60 percent of Texas residents are eligible for the special enrollment period.
She said that Obamacare navigators, who help people sign up for coverage, "started promoting the heck out of" the special enrollment period on Monday.
Before then, navigators tended not to mention those periods, because they were trying to get would-be customers signed up by the better-known deadline of last Friday.
Helen Shaheen, supervisor at the Health Council of South Florida, said, "We're trying to get as much messaging out there as possible to make people aware that there is an extension of the deadine in Florida."
Shaheen, whose organization helps Miami-Dade County residents sign up for Obamacare, said a Facebook message she posted on Saturday promoting special enrollment had a higher response level than any other message she posted during the normal open ernollment period.
"We have quite a few appointments today," she said.
Shaheen also said demand for Obamacare plans was so strong during the regular open enrollment that her group expects it saw the number of sign-ups increase by about 20 percent compared with last year for the same time period.
But she said there remains widespread ignorance about the deadlines.
Obamacare advocates expect that total enrollment for 2018 plans will be significantly lower than the tally for 2017 because of the shorter sign-up deadlines in much of the country, lack of awareness about those deadlines, and cutbacks to advertising and outreach budgets promoting enrollment by the Trump administration.
Gaba of ACASignups.net said the longer deadlines in some states, as well as the special enrollment periods granted for hurricane-affected people this year, present the opportunity to make up for some of the losses that will result from the shorter HealthCare.gov deadline.