ACA Special Enrollment Periods: When and How to Enroll

WRITTEN BY: Craig Sturgill


Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs) ensure that individuals and families can access health insurance coverage during significant life changes. Understanding SEPs and the qualifying life events that trigger them is essential for anyone navigating the complex landscape of health insurance. This article will explore the reasons for SEPs, the importance of these enrollment windows, and who can benefit from them.

What is an ACA Special Enrollment Period (SEP)?

Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs) are specific timeframes outside the regular open enrollment period when individuals can enroll in or modify their health insurance plans. Unlike the annual Open Enrollment Period, SEPs are triggered by qualifying life events, providing flexibility for those experiencing significant life changes.

Qualifying life events

Qualifying life events are the key triggers for SEPs. These events are specific circumstances that allow individuals to enroll or change their health insurance coverage. Let’s delve into some common qualifying life events:

Involuntary loss of other coverage

If you involuntarily lose your minimum essential coverage, you qualify for a SEP. This loss can result from job loss or other factors, allowing you to maintain continuous coverage.

Individual plan renewing outside of regular Open Enrollment

Certain health insurance plans renew outside of the regular open enrollment period. SEPs enable individuals to explore new ACA-compliant plans during these renewals.

Becoming or gaining a dependent

Welcoming a new family member through birth, adoption, or foster care triggers a SEP. Coverage can be backdated to the date of the event.


Getting married initiates a 60-day open enrollment window. However, at least one partner must have had coverage or lived outside the U.S. for at least one of the 60 days before the marriage.

Divorce (in some state-run exchanges)

Losing health insurance due to divorce qualifies for a SEP in some state-run exchanges, providing options for coverage post-divorce.

Becoming a United States citizen or lawfully present resident

This SEP applies exclusively within the exchanges. Recent immigrants can qualify for premium subsidies, even with income below the poverty level, during this enrollment period.

Permanent move

Moving to an area with different qualified health plans triggers a SEP, provided you had minimum essential coverage for at least one of the 60 days before the move.

An error or problem with enrollment

When an enrollment error occurs due to the exchange’s fault, a SEP can be granted to rectify the problem.

The employer-sponsored plan becomes unaffordable or stops providing minimum value

Changes in employer-sponsored plan affordability or minimum value can lead to SEPs. Employees can switch to individual market plans during this period. This SEP also applies to situations where you’re leaving or losing your current employer’s coverage.

An income increase that moves you out of the coverage gap

Income changes that make you newly eligible for premium subsidies can trigger SEPs, addressing the coverage gap issue in some states.

Gaining access to a QSEHRA or individual coverage HRA

This SEP allows individuals who gain access to a QSEHRA or ICHRA benefit to enroll in or switch individual market plans, ensuring flexibility in health coverage.

An income or circumstance change that affects subsidies or CSR, or an income that doesn’t exceed 150% of the poverty

Changes in income or circumstances that impact subsidy eligibility result in SEPs.

Various exceptional circumstances

SEPs can be granted in response to exceptional circumstances, such as natural disasters or domestic abuse.

Importance of SEPs for different life situations

SEPs offer crucial flexibility during significant life changes. They act as safeguards against gaps in healthcare coverage and assist individuals and families in various scenarios:

  • Job loss: SEPs help individuals maintain coverage after involuntary job loss.
  • Marriage or divorce: These life changes come with new healthcare considerations, and SEPs provide the opportunity to adjust coverage accordingly.
  • Relocation: Moving to a new area or state necessitates changing health plans, and SEPs facilitate this transition.
  • Income changes: SEPs address income fluctuations, ensuring individuals receive the right level of subsidies.
  • Special health reimbursement arrangements: SEPs allow those transitioning to QSEHRAs or ICHRAs to select suitable individual market plans.
  • Citizenship or lawful presence status changes: Immigrants gain access to healthcare coverage through SEPs.

Access to year-round enrollment for specific populations

Certain populations can enroll year-round without the need for a qualifying life event. These include:

  • Native Americans/Alaska Natives: These individuals can enroll anytime during the year, enhancing healthcare access.
  • Medicaid and CHIP enrollees: Medicaid and CHIP enrollment remains open year-round.
  • Certain employer group plans: Employers can select Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) plans year-round.


What is a Special Enrollment Period (SEP)?

A Special Enrollment Period (SEP) is a specific time frame outside the regular Open Enrollment Period when you can enroll in or change your health insurance plan. SEPs are triggered by qualifying life events and ensure you have access to health coverage during significant life changes.

What are some common qualifying life events for SEPs?

Common qualifying life events include getting married, having a baby or adopting a child, losing other health coverage involuntarily, moving to a new area, gaining citizenship or lawful presence in the US, and more. These events can make you eligible for a SEP.

How long do I have to enroll during a Special Enrollment Period?

The timeframe for enrolling during a SEP can vary depending on the qualifying event. You usually have 60 days from the qualifying event date to enroll. However, some events, like the birth of a child, may allow you to enroll in advance. It’s essential to act promptly when a qualifying event occurs.

Can I switch plans during a Special Enrollment Period?

Yes, you can typically switch plans during a SEP. If you experience a qualifying life event that makes you eligible for a SEP, you can select a new health insurance plan that better suits your needs.

What happens if I don’t qualify for a Special Enrollment Period?

If you don’t have a qualifying life event, you can only enroll in or change your health insurance plan during the annual Open Enrollment Period. It’s important to review your coverage needs during open enrollment and make any necessary adjustments for the upcoming year.

Find affordable health insurance in your area

Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs) ensure access to health insurance coverage during life changes. Understanding the qualifying life events that trigger SEPs is essential for making informed decisions about health insurance. Use our online rate form to review health insurance options in your area and connect with a licensed insurance professional.

Related Content