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7 Ways to Make Picking a Health Insurance Plan Less Stressful

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'Tis the season to be jolly! That is, unless you're one of the millions of people who has to shop for health insurance —again—in which case, 'tis the season to be stressed out. Even shopping for toilet paper is more fun than shopping for health plans. Sorting through deductibles, premiums, networks, prescription coverage, and all the other aspects of finding the right insurance plan is enough to put anyone out of the holiday spirit. (But you can get excited about these Exciting New Laws Reshaping Healthcare in the U.S.)

While Obamacare has brought healthcare to many people who either couldn't afford it or weren't eligible before—something we're still ecstatic about, by the way—the open marketplace concept has had an unfortunate side effect: serious price volatility. Over 50 percent of people who bought plans through the program have seen their rates rise in the past year, sometimes doubling or tripling as companies drop the cheap introductory prices they used to lure customers. This has led 25 percent of people to switch plans, something which might not be a huge deal—except they're having to switch every fall. And switching your health insurance isn't like switching phone plans.

So to save you the headache (because who knows if your plan covers aspirin!), we've broken down seven ways to help de-stress your health insurance shopping this year.

1. Sign up by December 15, 2015. Yes, it's that soon. (But, hey, sometimes it helps to have a short deadline—you can't procrastinate!) The open enrollment window technically lasts November 15, 2015 through January 31, 2016, but if you want your coverage to start January 1, 2016, you need to have it done well before the holidays.

2. Go to HealthCare.gov. This is the official government site and clearinghouse for all insurance plans on the open market. Even if your state has their own site, you should start here first. Healthcare.gov can connect you with your state or federal marketplace and give you important information about availability in your area. It's also a valuable resource for getting help or asking questions.

3. Consider switching plans. If you're currently insured through the marketplace and do nothing, your plan will automatically renew. But while this may be the easiest option, it likely isn't the the most cost effective. According to HealthCare.gov, customers that switch plans save nearly $500 a year. That's totally worth a few extra hours of research, right? To quickly compare plans and see if you can save money, try this handy calculator.

4. Try to stay with your same provider. Many people assume that switching plans means switching providers, but it's often possible to stay with your same carrier—say Blue Cross Blue Shield—but choose a cheaper plan with a similar coverage level. This will help you maintain "continuity of care," meaning you get to see your same doctors and use the same hospitals, something that's especially important if you're managing a chronic condition. (Did you know There's No Evidence You Need an Annual Physical?)

5. Under 30? You may be eligible for special rates. Being young and healthy has advantages far beyond Hollywood! Many insurance providers offer special deals for people still in their teens and 20s. There are also special exceptions made for pregnant women or U.S. military veterans of any age.

6. Don't forget the penalty fee (or the tax credit!). If you let your coverage lapse or don't have enough coverage, you'll be fined a minimum of $695. Yikes! But the government doesn't just want to punish you for not having insurance, they also want to reward you when you do sign up: Once you're insured, you may be eligible for a premium tax credit which will lower your monthly payments.

7. Ask for help. If it all still feels like too much (government forms can do that to the best of us!), don't be afraid to ask for help. There are local agencies not affiliated with any insurance company that can help you figure out what you need to do next. (Psst... Have you tried these Healthy Google Hacks yet?)

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