March 26 (Bloomberg) -- Some people will get more time to finish enrolling in Obamacare insurance plans under new rules that include anyone who begins signing up before March 31 or was previously kept from enrolling by website flaws.
Americans who aren’t insured by March 31 are supposed to pay a penalty of as much as 1 percent of their income, according to the law. The extension, announced yesterday and clarified today, opens up the chance to produce many more last-minute enrollees. The U.S. website, healthcare.gov, drew 1.1 million visitors on March 24, the second-most in a single day.
Consumers who begin applying by 11:59 p.m. on March 31 will be able to complete their enrollment later in plans to take effect May 1, according to a document the government posted today. Additionally, those who attest online they had trouble signing up before the deadline can begin the enrollment process after March 31, said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The changes immediately drew the wrath of Republican opponents to the law.
“What the hell is this, a joke?” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said today at a news conference. “The law says that enrollment stops at the end of March. I’ve got to live by the law, you’ve got live by the law and the American people have to live by the law. The president needs to live by the law, too.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, called Boehner’s remarks “drivel” in his own news conference. “These people need a little extra time,” he said.
5 Million Enrollees
About 5 million people enrolled in private plans through March 17 using government health exchanges created by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, the administration has said. With a last-minute surge, the U.S. effort may meet or exceed 6 million, the most recent estimate of the Congressional Budget Office and a symbolic goal for President Barack Obama, who faces continuing criticism from political foes that the law is not viable.
Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, said that while the deadline remains March 31, “if you are in line when we close, you get to enroll. This is about helping people who want to get health insurance.”
Bataille declined to say today how long late applicants would have to enroll. Insurers said the administration should limit the time last-minute applicants have to enroll and specify a deadline.
“This helps to ensure there is an incentive for people to enroll,” Clare Krusing, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s Washington lobby group, said in an e-mail. “It is also necessary so health plans know who is covered as they develop and submit premiums for next year, which is required in some states as early as April.”
Some states that run their own exchanges followed suit. Peter Lee, the executive director of Covered California, said people who start enrolling on March 31 using the state’s exchange will have until April 15 to finish.
Unlike the federal government, Lee’s agency outlined specific steps applicants would have to complete on March 31. Californians won’t be able to begin an application after the end of March, he said.
“For months and months we’ve been telling Californians ‘don’t wait, enroll now,’” he said in a conference call with reporters. “They have from now until the end of Monday, midnight on the 31st, to enroll and get insurance that starts May 1.”
The extension of enrollment into April may be a boon for tax preparation companies including Jackson Hewitt Tax Service Inc., which have been helping uninsured customers enroll in Affordable Care Act plans when they file tax returns. April 15 is the annual deadline to file a federal return.
“Our most recent projections indicate that HHS can meet its target of 6 million enrollees on the marketplaces only if it allows individuals to continue to sign up through April 15,” Brian Haile, senior vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt, said yesterday in an e-mail. “With this announcement, we believe that HHS is on a clear trajectory to succeed with its enrollment goal.”
Obama administration officials were deployed across the country over the last month to help push enrollment in advance of the deadline.
Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. health secretary, visited Montclair State University in New Jersey yesterday to observe local enrollment efforts there, while Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett met with local officials in Los Angeles at an event at a community health clinic, according to a White House statement.
Sebelius is scheduled to be interviewed today via satellite by television stations in St. Louis; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Montgomery, Alabama; Indianapolis; Detroit and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Jarrett will participate in enrollment events in Phoenix, and Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, will attend events in Miami.
Some states have also seen a recent surge in exchange traffic, officials said.
Kevin Counihan, chief executive officer of Connecticut’s exchange, said on Twitter that more than 4,000 people had signed up yesterday for private health plans and Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor.
The website turnout in Washington state was four times the weekly enrollment average, the group running the online exchange said in a statement. Since Oct. 1, more than 125,000 state residents have enrolled in private health plans through the exchange, according to the statement.
Oregon’s governor, John Kitzhaber, announced today that all of his state’s residents will have until April 30 to enroll in coverage. Oregon’s state-run health exchange has been plagued by technical errors since enrollment began on Oct. 1.
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