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In December, Obamacare wades into 'uncharted waters'

Dec. 15 is the deadline for those who want Obamacare coverage by January 1.
Navigator Dianelys Dominguez, left, assists Giovanny Vega, 18, of Miami, right, sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Nov. 17, 2014, in Miami, Fla. (Photo by Lynne Sladky/AP)
Navigator Dianelys Dominguez, left, assists Giovanny Vega, 18, of Miami, right, sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Nov. 17, 2014, in Miami, Fla.

Obamacare will be put to the test once more on Monday, which is the deadline for signing up for 2015 coverage beginning on Jan. 1. 

It's been a far smoother ride for health care reform's online marketplace this year, which was largely free of the technical glitches after last year's disastrous rollout. But health officials are preparing for a potential surge of customers as the marketplace approaches its first major deadline of the season and current participants re-enroll for the first time.

"It’s important for anyone who was either signed up in the exchanges last year or is losing another source of health coverage and wants to make sure they’re covered continuously," says Caroline Pearson of Avalere Health, a research and consulting firm.

Nearly everyone who signed up through the federal exchange will be automatically re-enrolled in their plan, due to a move that the Obama administration made earlier this year. But not everyone who signed up through a state-based exchange will be. And health officials are urging all 2014 participants to shop around again, as many of their premiums are expected to rise, and new competition means there could be lower-priced options available for similar coverage. 

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The final deadline for 2015 coverage isn't until Feb. 15, however, when health experts expect the biggest surge in enrollment. By that time, those currently enrolled may also be motivated to reconsider their options as they'll have received their first invoice for January 2015 coverage.

"I’m definitely expecting a 2015 surge of re-enrollment after people get their first month premium bill — a lot of people will be getting a premium increase they weren’t prepared for or happy about," says Pearson. 

Premium increases were on average lower than experts had been anticipating, but sticker shock could still fuel discontent with the law. GOP Rep. John Mica pointed to the price hikes at a House hearing last week. "My premiums have gone up. The premiums I would say for most Americans listening or participating have gone up," he said. 

Those who plan to keep their coverage in 2015 also need to indicate whether their incomes have changed or if they expect them to next year, otherwise they may be receiving the wrong subsidy amount. About 82% of the 6.7 million currently enrolled through Obamacare's exchange receive subsidies for insurance.

Karen Pollitz, senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, says that marketplace officials and navigators are still getting up to speed on the challenges of re-enrolling consumers. "They’re aren’t very many people who know this cold, because it’s just brand new," says Pollitz. 

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Health advocates and officials have tried to get the word out about the steps that current customers should take to ensure they have the best 2015 coverage. They've also made a new push to enroll new consumers in the marketplace, concentrating on Latinos and other groups that lagged behind in signing up for coverage the first time around. 

"More insurers have started coming in with more options. There are good deals to be had — it's a good Christmas present," President Obama said in a radio interview with Ryan Seacrest that aired on Monday.

Early numbers indicate that enrollment is on track for this year, experts say, with 1.4 million signed up in the first three weeks of open enrollment, about half of whom are returning Obamacare customers.

"We’ve seen a better start to enrollment this year, and our plans have done everything they can to help make this year much smoother. We're still entering some uncharted waters with the first year of renewals and auto-enrollment, so we expect some challenges for consumers will still arise," said Clare Krusing, a spokesperson for America's Health Insurance Plans, which lobbies for the insurance industry.