You've left or are leaving your job. You're eligible for COBRA. What do you do next?

I know it sounds self-serving, but I can't overstress this: One of the very first things you should do when leaving a job is talk with a reputable health insurance agent. With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, it has never been more important to know your options in the decision-making process.

Leaving a job that offers health insurance benefits is considered a qualifying life event, triggering a Special Enrollment Period. That means you have 60 days in which you're eligible to apply for an individual health insurance plan (either on or off the Marketplace) if you want to.

Without a qualifying life event, you're only eligible to apply for individual insurance during the Annual Enrollment Period (AEP), normally with a January 1st effective date. (I say "normally" because this very first Annual Enrollment Period is the exception, running for a total of six months.)

If you accept COBRA, you are considered to have insurance. If you find out a month or two later that an individual policy (possibly with a large subsidy) would have saved you a lot of money, it's too late. Dropping that COBRA policy is NOT a qualifying life event, so you're out of luck.

You'll have two options: Keep the COBRA until the next AEP, or drop the COBRA and go uninsured or with a short term medical plan if you're eligible. Neither of those options will protect you from probably having to pay a penalty to the government at tax time.

So when you're offered COBRA, take the time to do a little homework. You may be eligible for a subsidy that will cut your monthly costs considerably. Or an individual plan, even without a subsidy, may well be less expensive.

Either way, calling an expert in health insurance will give you the peace of mind you need at a time that usually is stressful enough without adding health insurance concerns into the mix!