Monday is deadline for Floridians to buy health insurance if they want it to start Jan. 1

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MIAMI — Floridians have until Monday to sign up for health insurance if they want coverage to take effect on Jan. 1, but experts warn most consumers are unaware of the deadline.

The second enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act has gone much smoother this year with no major meltdowns, but educating consumers is still a challenge. Many don't know they can only buy health insurance both on and off the insurance exchange between Nov. 15 and Feb. 15 unless they have a major life change like get married or find a new job.

"The average consumer we're speaking with doesn't seem to know about the deadline. We're certainly trying to get the word out, though it's an uphill battle. We're stressing to our navigators that right now, education is just as important as enrollment," said Franco Ripple, spokesman for Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, South Florida's largest health navigator group. Navigators help would-be customers find policies.

Many new consumers are also unaware that they could receive financial assistance to help pay their monthly premiums. Almost 1 million Floridians last year received a tax credit — more than 90 percent of those who enrolled.

The group is partnering with the nonprofit Enroll America to host events all week at various Miami Dade College campuses to target young, healthy adults. The health care law also allows children to stay on their parent's insurance until they turn 26.

For those signed up last year, coverage will renew automatically if they do nothing, but that may not produce the best result. The returning customers could miss out on lower-premium options and get stuck with outdated and possibly incorrect subsidies.

The majority of current enrollees, more than seven in 10, can find a lower premium plan at the same bronze, silver, gold or platinum level before tax credit by returning to shop, according to federal health officials.

Florida consumers also have more options to choose from this year as several new insurance companies, including the titan UnitedHealthcare, joined the market.

"For returning customers, it pays to shop," said Health and Human Services spokesman Benjamin Wakana.

An Associated Press analysis found that just under half of all Florida counties saw average premium increases in the 10 to 15 percent range. Some rural counties, particularly in agricultural areas west of Lake Okeechobee, and counties where senior citizens make up a significant portion of the population, saw the biggest increases in average premium costs for "silver" plans from 2014 to 2015.

Critics say premium increases signal the Affordable Care Act isn't working, but health insurance rates have risen as much as 20 or 30 percent in recent years.

And federal health officials noted that 85 percent of current Florida enrollees could obtain coverage for $100 or less after any applicable tax credits in 2015.

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