Health Insurance

When's the Obamacare Deadline? Good Question


An insurance agent from Sunshine Life and Health Advisors helps a group of people purchase health insurance on March 20 in Miami

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

An insurance agent from Sunshine Life and Health Advisors helps a group of people purchase health insurance on March 20 in Miami

More than half of uninsured American adults don’t know when the deadline is to sign up for health coverage and avoid a penalty under the Affordable Care Act, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Thanks to the White House’s latest 11th-hour change to the law, the rest of us don’t know either.

People who start but don’t complete the application process by midnight on March 31—long thought to be the deadline—will have extra time to enroll, the administration announced Wednesday.

How will the government verify that latecomers actually tried to enroll earlier? It won’t, according to the Washington Post, which broke the story of the latest delay Tuesday night. “People will be able to qualify for an extension by checking a blue box on HealthCare.gov. … This method will rely on an honor system; the government will not try to determine whether the person is telling the truth.”

Some states running health insurance marketplaces independent of healthcare.gov, including Maryland and Nevada, have loosened their own deadlines. The grace period may be good for consumers, especially if heavy traffic clogs healthcare.gov and prevents them from signing up by Monday. The change is terrible for the Obama administration’s credibility, already battered by months of delays and modifications to Obamacare.

The White House has long insisted March 31 was the final, drop-dead deadline for open enrollment in 2014, even as it changed or delayed other elements of the law. “Open enrollment ends on March 31, and in fact we don’t actually have the statutory authority to extend the open enrollment period in 2014,” Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told reporters on a March 11 conference call.

Michael Hash, director of the Office of Health Reform, responding to a follow-up question, said:

“The statute actually directs the secretary [of health and human services] to establish the dates for open enrollment in the first year, that’s 2014 open enrollment, by no later than June 2012. … Once that 2014 open enrollment period has been set … they are set permanently for 2014. We do not believe we have the authority to extend that period beyond March 31, and as Julie said, we have no plans to do so.”

In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, administration officials were sticking to their story—the enrollment period would close March 31 except for those people who were “in line” before the deadline. “Any consumer who comes in after April 1 will have to attest to the fact that they were in line and are eligible to continue their enrollment,” Bataille said. Absent any additional verification by the government, all that entails is checking the blue box, which effectively allows people to enroll late with no consequences.

Bataille said the government couldn’t predict how long the window for latecomers would remain open. “It could take a few days, it could take a week or so,” she said.

Insurance companies aren’t thrilled about the shifting deadlines—if your business is managing risk, you tend to prefer certainty, after all. Clare Krusing, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry lobby group, said in an e-mail that people who were stymied signing up should be able to get coverage. But the industry wants the next deadline to stick. “The new special open enrollment period needs to be limited to a defined period of time with a clear end date,” Krusing wrote. “This helps to ensure there is an incentive for people to enroll.”

John_tozzi
Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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