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Countdown to Obamacare deadlines

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By Tami Luhby

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Want health insurance by January 1? Better pick an Obamacare plan by Monday and pay for it before New Year's Day.

There's been a lot of confusion surrounding the deadlines for applying for Obamacare -- and with good reason. Federal and state governments, as well as insurers, keep changing the dates, mainly to accommodate those blocked from completing enrollment due to technical problems.

More than a million people have signed up for private insurance in the federal and state exchanges, President Obama said Friday. And exchanges are reporting heavy interest in the days leading up to Monday.

Each consumer faces two deadlines: One by which to choose a plan and another for making a payment.

Federal exchange: As of now, if you live in one of the 36 states serviced by the federal enrollment website, healthcare.gov, your best bet for getting hassle-free coverage in 2014 is to select a policy by end of the day on Monday and pay your first month's premium by December 31.

But procrastinators and those running into technical roadblocks might get a short reprieve.

Federal officials said recently that individuals who try to sign up, but encounter a problem with the website, can qualify for a special enrollment period and gain coverage as soon as possible. The government is also "encouraging" insurers to allow people who miss Monday's deadline to still be eligible for coverage starting January 1, even if they sign up sometime in January.

When it comes to paying for a plan selected on healthcare.gov, the insurance industry trade group said last week that folks who pay by January 10 can have coverage retroactive to the start of the year. But the group stressed that coverage doesn't begin until the first payment is made. So people who wait until the 10th to pay might have to shell out for their initial medical care up front and file for reimbursement from their provider.

State exchanges: If you are applying in one of the 14 states running its own exchange, you may have a different set of deadlines.

Minnesota became the latest state to change its dates. Residents there have until December 31 to pick a plan and have coverage start the next day, exchange officials said Friday. They have until January 10 to pay.

Rhode Islanders also have until December 31 to pick a plan and have coverage start the next day. But they have to pay their first premium by January 6 and won't receive an ID card until they do.

The change was made "to make sure more Rhode Islanders are able to have health care on January 1," said Dara Chadwick, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island exchange. "There's been a lot of confusion in the messaging."

In Washington, residents who try to apply by Monday but run into problems have until January 15 to pick and pay for a plan. Coverage will be retroactive to January 1.

Other states have extended either the deadline to choose a plan or to pay the premium. Oregon and Maryland pushed back the deadline to pick a policy to December 27, with one Maryland insurer giving applicants until December 31.

Consumers in Maryland and Oregon have until January 15 to pay, while California is giving residents until January 6, Vermont until January and Connecticut until January 10.

Regardless of where you live, you should call your insurer of choice to check its deadlines and, after you pay, check your enrollment status.

For those who miss the deadline altogether, don't worry. You can still get coverage starting February 1 if you pick a plan by January 15 and pay by the end of January.

Open enrollment ends March 31. The uninsured must pick a plan by then to avoid a penalty. These procrastinators would see coverage start May 1.
   
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