Here are some steps to take: First, see whether your employer provides early retiree health coverage.
Many employers got help paying for retiree coverage through the Affordable Care Act, which encouraged them to maintain retiree benefits during these tough economic times and to reduce plan costs for retirees. In 2010, about 4.5 million retirees and dependents benefited from this help.
Second, see if you can get coverage through your spouse's employer. If your spouse's plan offers you coverage, you have a "special opportunity" to enroll when you lose your own job-based coverage, even if it is not the normal open enrollment season.
Third, read notices from your employer carefully to find out if you are eligible for COBRA (or other "continuation" benefits). Be sure to apply and pay premiums within the deadlines.
Though COBRA is expensive (you pay the full cost of premiums), it is probably a better deal than you could get if you shopped for an individual plan: Under COBRA, you won't be charged more due to your health, and you can't be denied coverage due to your pre-existing conditions.
Fourth, if you are retiring due to disability, check with the Social Security Administration about whether you should apply for benefits.
You will have to wait a number of months to receive Medicare, but applying for Social Security gets the process started. Veterans and federal employees should check their options under the Veterans Administration and the Federal Employees Health Plan, respectively.
If your income is low and you have a permanent disability, you may also qualify for Medicaid, and there is no waiting period for that. Check with your state Medicaid agency (www.medicaid.gov/Medicaid-CHIP-Program-Information/ By-State/By-State.html) for more information.
If you are already uninsured and are having trouble finding a plan that will accept you, try the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, www.pcip.gov. This plan, established under the Affordable Care Act, covers people who have been uninsured for at least six months and who have a health condition or who have been turned down by other insurers based on their health. Premium costs are similar to what healthy people pay for insurance.
Once you find coverage for now, keep watching for the date you can apply for Medicare - usually three months before you turn 65. You'll need to apply soon thereafter in order to avoid late penalties.
Good news is coming in 2014: Adults will have more options for affordable coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
You will be able to buy a policy through an "exchange" where you can easily compare plans. The new Affordable Care Act also requires insurance companies to provide simple, easy-to-understand summaries of benefits that will help you cut through the red-tape and figure out what each plan actually offers in terms of benefits.
Many middle-income individuals and families will qualify for tax credits to help them pay the cost of premiums, and they will get help with other plan costs.
In addition, come 2014, insurance companies will no longer be able to turn you down or charge you more based on your health status or pre-existing conditions.
This is a provision that will help many people in the 55- to 64-year-old age group. Studies show that uninsured people in this age group are especially likely to have chronic conditions, forgo needed care, and to have been turned down by insurers based on their health status.
Also in 2014, more low-income adults will be able to get help through the Medicaid program. Right now, in most states, you must be permanently disabled, over 65, or have dependent children to get Medicaid, but in 2014, most adults who earn less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level (that's about $19,564 for a family of two) will qualify.
Older adults who have lost jobs and those with temporary disabilities will benefit from this Medicaid improvement.
Consumer assistance programs (www.familiesusa.org/resources/program-locator/) can help you understand more about your coverage choices and rights, now and in 2014.
Pollack is executive director of Families USA, a national organization for health care consumers.