3 Affordable Care Act Dates You Can't Afford to Miss

PHOTO: A man looks over the Affordable Care Act signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York, in this Oct. 2, 2013 photo.
Mike Segar/Reuters

The dates and deadlines associated with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare, are a moving target. They seem to change by the week, if not more often, in response to government conflicts, website malfunctions, and consumer complaints. Most importantly, you may be worried about missing a deadline and therefore missing a chance to be covered – and instead being charged a punishing tax penalty. Here are the most important dates to know in the coming months.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013—Deadline for Coverage Starting January 1st

The 24th is the new deadline to enroll in marketplace coverage if you want a plan that begins as soon as possible (the earliest you can have coverage through a marketplace plan is Jan. 1, 2014). Not too long ago, the deadline was Dec. 15, 2013, then Dec. 23. The date changed in response to glitches on HealthCare.gov and state websites that made it difficult for many Americans to shop for insurance.

The websites are now working more efficiently, and you can enroll up until midnight on the 24th to get coverage starting January 1.

Read More: White House Extends Health Care Sign-Up Deadline by 1 Day

Wednesday, January 1, 2014—1st Day of Coverage

Happy New Year's, and Happy New Coverage Day! If you enrolled in a plan by the December 23rd deadline, you can see a doctor and have full coverage for that visit starting January 1st. In addition, a recent date change means that you can be covered on January 1st without having paid—most insurance shoppers will have until January 10th to pay their first bill. Some states, however, maintain their own payment deadlines, so check with your state exchange to be sure.

Read More: 5 Tips for Choosing a Health Insurance Company

If you apply for coverage after December 23rd, your coverage will begin on a rather straightforward schedule. If you enroll during the first half of a month, your coverage begins the first day of the next month and after you've paid your first month's premium. If you enroll during the second half of the month, your coverage begins the first day of the second month following your enrollment and after you've paid your premium. For example, if you enroll on January 10th, your coverage will begin on February 1st. Waiting a few days more until January 16th, however, will mean that your coverage won't begin until March 1st.

Monday, March 31, 2014—Open Enrollment Closes and Penalty Is Charged

If you forget every other date, make sure that March 31st is the one that sticks with you. This is the last day for open enrollment—meaning that if you want an insurance plan through the federal or state marketplaces, you must enroll by this date. Past March 31st, you must qualify for a Special Enrollment Period to sign up for these plans. Don't forget that you can buy insurance at any time outside of the marketplace, but you will not have access to government subsidies that reduce your premium costs for non-marketplace plans.

March 31st is also the deadline to sign up by if you want to avoid the tax penalty. If you aren't exempt and cannot show proof of acceptable coverage, you will be liable for a tax penalty that will be withheld from your tax refund. The penalty in 2014 will be 1 percent of your income or $95 per adult and $47.50 per child in a household—whichever of the two amounts is greater. The penalty in 2014 may seem negligible, but it is set to increase substantially after 2014. Mark March 31st on your calendar and be sure to enroll by this date if you are planning on getting insured for 2014.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Napala Pratini writes for NerdWallet Health, a website that empowers consumers to find high quality, affordable health care and insurance.

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