Today is the day everyone dreads--the day you have to start thinking about health insurance. Many of us think about health insurance regularly, but right now you really need to stop and think because it's open enrollment time. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I also write for Anthem and United Concordia Insurance Companies. They have no idea I'm writing this article and did not influence me in any way.)

Why Does Open Enrollment Matter?

You can buy a car any day of the year. You can sell your house in June or December. However, you only buy health insurance once a year (with a few exceptions, see below). The time for 2017 is from November 1, 2016, to January 31, 2017. If your employer provides your health insurance, your open enrollment period can vary, but it's most likely during this period.

If you miss this period, you won't be able to make changes later or enroll unless you have a qualifying event. You can, however, enroll in Medicaid or Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) any time of the year, if you qualify.

Can't I Just Keep Whatever I Had Last Year?

Sure! And in the past, you could pretty much let open enrollment come and go without much thought. You liked your plan, you were staying on it, and things just continued. This year, however, many plans are disappearing and yours might be one of them. If it is, you'll need to select a new plan and that generally means starting the process over at square one.

For plans that are staying the same--even employee provided plans--the rates can be climbing astronomically. You'll want to double-check that the plan you have is still the right one for your family and your budget. You may need to make changes.

What Can You Do During Open Enrollment?

During this period, you're pretty much free to change your health insurance plan. However, there are a few things that you should consider you don't get caught in an insurance trap:

  • Your employer may require you to stay on their plan--even if the Exchanges would be cheaper.
  • Your spouse's health insurance plan may be cheaper, and you may think it's a great time for you to switch over, but before you drop your plan, make sure they'll take you. Many companies won't cover a spouse that has an employer-sponsored plan available to him or her.
  • Don't assume that because your plan was the best value for your family last year, it's the best value for 2017. Please read through and consider everything.
  • Cheap doesn't necessarily mean the best value. Ask about doctors. The last thing you want is to pay for health insurance that you can use because no doctors in your town accept your health insurance or those that do have waiting lists a mile long.

What Are the Exceptions?

If you get married, divorced, have a baby, or change your job, you can change your insurance at any point during the year. Otherwise, whatever you select now, you'll be stuck with for all of 2017 with whatever you select now. (The exchanges do have an exception for "missing a deadline" but don't count on that as a solution to your health care planning.)

Don't Forget the Little Things

We think a lot about health insurance, but don't forget about dental and vision insurance, and your Healthcare Savings Account, Dependent Care Accounts and any other things offered by your employer. Think through your needs and make the decisions as soon as you can. Ask your HR department for help if you need it. If you ask at the beginning of open enrollment, you'll be likely to get a faster answer than if you wait until the end when everyone is asking.

Don't let the fact that health insurance is scary and expensive scare you off from looking at this right now. Your health for 2017 depends on it.