Obamacare countdown: What you need to know about the March 31 deadline

The buzzer is about to sound on Obamacare enrollment.

Less than two weeks are left to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, the federal law that went into effect this year. It requires that most Americans have health insurance and provides government assistance to make coverage cheaper. 

In California, more than 1 million people have already signed up for a private health plan in the state's health insurance exchange, Covered California.

There's a deadline coming up that has raised some questions. Here are some answers:

What is the March 31 deadline?

That's the last day to buy a health policy for 2014. 

If you think you might qualify for premium subsidies based on your income, you have to buy a plan through a health exchange. For information, visit the Covered California website or call (800) 300-1506.

Obamacare: Questions and Answers

Patience is advised; call wait times have been running 30 minutes to an hour. The state website also lists local enrollment counselors and insurance agents who offer help at no cost.

After March 31, you won't be able to sign up for a private plan until the next open enrollment period scheduled for November. Lower-income people can still qualify year-round for Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program.

There's also special enrollment for people who lose their job, get a divorce or have some other major event in their life.

I heard Obamacare deadlines keep changing. Will this one be extended?

President Obama recently said the deadline won't be pushed back. However, it's likely that if you start signing up on March 31 and run into technical difficulties, you may get a few extra days to finish your application. But that grace period only applies if you started in time.

When does my coverage start? 

If you pick a health plan before March 31, your coverage should start May 1.

Check with your insurance company on when your first month's premium is due. For many, the deadline to pay will be April 25.

If I get health insurance through work or receive Medicare, do I have to do anything? 

No, you're set.

What happens if I don't sign up?  

The penalty for being uninsured in 2014 is $95 per adult, or 1% of your household income, whichever is greater. That would be assessed on your 2014 tax return.

The fine will increase in future years.

[For the record: An earlier version of this post gave an incorrect example of the penalty based on a certain income.]

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soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

Twitter: @skarlamangla