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Getting Health Insurance When You’re Between Jobs

A guide to the new rules under Obamacare

(This article previously appeared on Insure.com.)

You quit your job to take another, but you want to take a few weeks off in between jobs. Or perhaps your new employer has a waiting period until health coverage kicks in.

Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare) requires you to have health insurance, you might be wondering if the government is going to track you down and penalize you.

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Under the ACA, you can go up to three months in a row and not have to pay a penalty on your federal income taxes for being uninsured.

Work With the Calendar

If you're lucky, you'll be able to time your exit from your old job and the start of your new job so you aren’t without health insurance for more than 90 days, says Andrea Kinkade, president and benefits advisor at Kaminsky & Associates Inc. in Maumee, Ohio.

"You should check things out before you decide on a quit date," she advises.

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Here's what you need to do:

First, find out how long you will be covered under your current group health plan. Some plans end the day you leave your job; some end at the end of the month in which you leave.

Then, find out from your new employer when your new health benefits will start.

"Some employers used to require you wait a year for benefits. They can't do that anymore," Kinkade says.

Under Obamacare, employees must be eligible to enroll in their employer's health insurance within 90 days of their start date. It could be less.

You may have to wait only until the first of the month following your start date to enroll.  

These differences often depend on your industry. "If you're in an industry, such as white-collar technical engineering jobs, that really wants to attract employees, they will typically have a waiting period of 30 days or less," Kinkade says.

Other fields may not need to make their jobs as attractive and can force you to wait the full 90 days.

(MORE: Americans’ Disconnect Over Health Costs)

3 Options to Fill Your Gap

Once you know the end date for your current health insurance, the start date of your new insurance and how long you intend to take off in between jobs, you can decide how to fill your gap. There are three ways:

1. Get coverage through COBRA The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1996, known as COBRA, lets you buy coverage under your former employer’s group health plan, generally for up to 18 or 36 months. Employers with at least 20 employees must give you this option when you leave your job or are laid off or fired. Buying a health plan through COBRA will allow you to meet the requirements for being insured.

The COBRA election and payment period gives many people a good way around the coverage gap, particularly those who leave one job for another, since the maximum waiting period for new hires is no more than 90 days, Kinkade says.

“You have 60 days to make up your mind whether you're going to elect COBRA or not,” says Kinkade. “But it's always retroactive to your loss of coverage date."

When you get your COBRA notice from your former employer, it will tell you that you must elect coverage by a certain date. "We always recommend if your new coverage hasn't started by that date, elect COBRA," Kinkade says.

You now have 45 days from the time you elect COBRA health insurance to make your premium payments.

If, in those 45 days, you secure other coverage either through your new employer or somewhere else and you didn't have any health care claims, you simply don't pay your COBRA premium. It means you didn't really have COBRA, but you had the option available.

2. Buy an individual health plan from your state health insurance marketplace (an exchange) or directly from an insurer  Anyone can do this during “open enrollment.” Although open enrollment for 2014 coverage ended March 31 and the next window, for 2015 plans, begins Nov. 15, 2014, leaving your job is considered a "qualifying event." That makes you eligible to sign up for a health plan within 60 days of your loss-of-coverage date.

3. Purchase a short-term health plan These plans are available year-round, even outside open enrollment. However, they will likely not count as sufficient coverage under the ACA, and you can be rejected. You would opt for this if you have no other access to affordable coverage and want a safety net in case of a medical crisis.

Beth Orenstein is a freelance writer specializing in medical and financial topics.

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