How to Get Covered While Healthcare.gov Is Down

Here's what to do while the federal health insurance exchange faces glitches online.

A woman looks at the HealthCare.gov insurance exchange internet site Oct.1, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Many state-run health insurance marketplaces are performing better than the federal version, Healthcare.gov.

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Regardless of any political stance on Obamacare, one thing is certain: If you don't have health insurance by March 2014 you will face a tax penalty. Problems with Healthcare.gov, the website that was supposed to allow Americans to compare and select a health plan, have cut off some from enrolling, but there are other ways you can get coverage.

You can call representatives for the health insurance marketplace or mail in a paper application, sign up in person at locations around your state or use private health insurance websites or brokers. Some states have created their own online exchanges, and if you live in one of them, you do not need to go through Healthcare.gov, the website the federal government created.

If you prefer, however, there is still time to assess what the best plan is for you and your family. Americans must sign up by the 15th of any given month for health insurance to start on the first day of the following month. Someone who signs up by Dec. 15, for instance, would have health insurance on the first day in January. Americans must sign up by the end of March 2014 to avoid a tax penalty, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (also known as CMS).

The latest data from the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for carrying out the details of the health law, show that Healthcare.gov has received 700,000 applications – 5 percent of the 14 million Americans that the government hopes to add to insurance rolls in 2014. U.S. News turned to CMS, experts and news reports to help consumers understand what options they have to gain coverage no later than April 2014.

[View U.S. News' Health Insurance Guide.]

1. Use the telephone or snail mail: President Barack Obama announced that states were increasing the number of call center representatives to make up for the glitches with Healthcare.gov. The phone service for signing up for a health plan is toll-free, open 24/7, and available in 150 languages. When you dial 1-800-318-2596, a representative will help you fill out the application. Expect the process to take about 25 to 45 minutes, depending on whether you are signing up only yourself or your family.

You can also download, print and mail your application. Some consumers have reported problems with both of these methods as well, however, because the representative still has to enter the information you submit into Healthcare.gov. Be aware that you may have to follow up to ensure your information is processed.

2. Show up in person: Every state has counselors that can assist you in navigating through the health insurance process, helping you compare what will be covered once you enroll in a health plan. People who would rather avoid submitting their information over the Internet might want to consider this option. They can sit with a representative who will guide them through the process, whether on paper or online. To find the location that is closest to you, visit LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov.

If your income is 133 percent or lower of the federal poverty level – or $29,700 for a family of four – then you will qualify for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the health insurance program for low-income Americans. If you fit this criteria, you should go directly to the offices of those government agencies, whose locations you can find on Medicaid.gov or on your state government's website.

[Read Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Health Insurance.]

3. Use private health insurance websites or brokers: The only mandate of Obamacare is that you have health insurance, not that you purchase it through a government marketplace. That means you can choose to purchase it directly from a private health insurance company, whether online, in person or through the phone. The only downside is that may be more time consuming to compare one insurance company against another, but the sign-up process may be smoother. "These companies have been doing direct enrollment for years," says Sumit Nijhawan, CEO of Infogix, a software consulting company based in Naperville, Ill. "They have worked out all the kinks." You can also consider searching and hiring a health insurance broker, who will outline the differences of each plan for you.