With less than a week left until the March 31 end of open enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration will announce today that the insurance sign up period is being extended for consumers who were blocked from insurance enrollment by technical problems. The sign up period will now run through mid-April for people who enrolled in the marketplace but were unable to enroll in a health plan.
Open enrollment is to end Monday and the White House has maintained that the deadline was firm and would not be extended. Now the administration is saying that if people can show they were unable to sign up for an insurance plan because of an error by the Department of Health and Human Services or the federal exchange they will be given a special enrollment period.
The health insurance marketplace requires a two-step process, first with sign up for ObamaCare, then shopping for and enrolling in an insurance plan. The process has been plagued with technical difficulties.
The ObamaCare Facts website says the final deadline is March 31. However, if consumers sign up for the marketplace by then, but cannot enroll in an insurance plan in time they can get an ObamaCare extension until mid-April. That say that as of March 17, over 5 million have enrolled in private health plans.
Although working better than initially, HealthCare.gov still has problems. The site has been down or has shown inaccurate information. In some cases consumers have signed up for an insurance plan but received no information from the insurer. Some filed a complaint with the federal government. When pressured to fix the problem the insurer would report that they had no notice of the enrollment from the federal site.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) runs the federal insurance exchange. CMS spokesman Aaron Albright said they are undergoing a surge in demand as the deadline approaches, and are making sure they will be able to help people who are in line to complete enrollment either by phone or online by the deadline.
Secretary of health and human services Kathleen Sebelius maintains that the federal website has been repaired and is ready to handle the flood of applications expected right before the deadline. But some technology experts working on the exchange worry that it might freeze up in periods of high demand.
When asked about a grace period for people experiencing problems with the website, White House press secretary Jay Carney also said they want to make sure people who are already in line can finish the process.
According to the most recent monthly tracking poll from Kaiser Family Foundation, over 60 percent of uninsured people still did not know about the March 31 deadline. The poll also found that half of the uninsured people surveyed said they will probably risk the tax penalties and remain uninsured this year.
If the website goes down just before the deadline it could be political disaster for Democrats, who are just recovering from the negative response to the plan when the website left millions frustrated at the start of the enrollment period in October.
Extending the Affordable Care Act insurance sign up period is not a new precedent. President Bush did a similar extension in 2006 with the Medicare Part D Prescription benefit plans open enrollment period, which also experienced technical glitches and mass confusion.
By Beth A. Balen