WASHINGTON (AP) — Millions of Americans could get extra time to enroll for
taxpayer-subsidized coverage this year under President Barack Obama's
health care law, allowing the administration to boost sign-ups and the
political fortunes of Democrats under attack over the program's troubles.
The Health and
Human Services Department Wednesday posted two documents that detail
"special enrollment periods" for broad groups of people trying to access
new online health insurance markets.
started an application, but weren't able to finish before the March 31
open enrollment deadline, will get a limited amount of time to sign up for
coverage that would take effect May 1.
people in 10 general categories of special circumstances would also get
additional time to apply — up to 60 days. The categories include
exceptional circumstances such as natural disasters, system errors related
to immigration status, computer error messages due to technical
difficulties and situations involving domestic abuse, as well as other
sorts of problems.
extra time, the administration said it anticipates that heavy interest
between now and Monday "could potentially keep consumers from completing
the enrollment process despite their efforts to meet the deadline."
enrollment periods are allowed under the law, but previously they were
mainly expected to be used to accommodate changes in life circumstances,
such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child or job loss.
The latest tweaks
to health overhaul rules drew immediate scorn from Republicans committed
to repealing "Obamacare."
administration has now handed out so many waivers, special favors and
exemptions to help Democrats out politically ... it's basically become the
legal equivalent of Swiss cheese," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell,
R-Ky., said Wednesday.
announcement added to a perception of disarray that has dogged the health
care overhaul from its early days. It also raised concerns about the
potential for another round of technology problems such as the ones that
paralyzed HealthCare.gov after its Oct. 1 launch.
There seemed to
be three major factors involved:
— Concern about
turning away thousands of people who may belatedly try to enroll this
week. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 6 in 10 uninsured
people were unaware of the March 31 enrollment deadline, and half said
they didn't plan to get coverage. It can take several visits to the
website to finish an application.
— Many consumers
trying to use the new markets may still be getting tangled up in the
complicated enrollment process. The administration's own numbers show that
only about half of the people deemed eligible to enroll through March 1
actually went all the way through to signing up. More than 4 million
people either abandoned their applications or may still be trying to
— Obama himself
has been leading a last-minute drive to entice Hispanics to sign up. The
nation's largest minority — with the highest uninsured rate of any race or
ethnic group — has been on the sidelines and risks being left behind in
the drive to expand coverage.
The White House
is scrambling to meet a goal of 6 million signed up through new online
markets that offer subsidized private health insurance to people without
access to coverage on the job.
experiencing a surge in demand and are making sure that we will be ready
to help consumers who may be in line by the deadline to complete
enrollment, either online or over the phone," said HHS spokesman Aaron
Officials say the
federal website is holding up well under the added demand, with more than
1.2 million visits on Tuesday. But independent testing by Detroit-based
Compuware has found that the site runs slowly when compared to other
health insurance industry websites.
the grace period for people in line by March 31 will be available on the
How long the
extension will last depends on individual circumstances. HHS said it will
process paper applications received by April 7. Those applying online may
have more time, until April 15, the same as the tax filing deadline.
People who are due tax refunds may be willing to put some of that money
toward health care premiums.
extension and the announcement of special enrollment periods follow other
delays, most significantly of the law's requirements that medium- to
large-sized businesses provide coverage or face fines.
making repeal of the health care law their rallying cry in the fall
congressional elections. If the various extensions succeed in boosting
enrollment, that would help Democratic candidates, including politically
vulnerable senators who voted for the law's passage in 2010. Democrats are
campaigning to fix the law's problems, not repeal.
The White House
had signaled last week that a grace period of some sort was in the works.
Spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that people in line by the deadline would
be able to complete their applications. Administration officials argue
that's not extending the deadline. They compare it to the Election Day
practice of allowing people to vote if they are in line when the polls
administration's actions primarily affect the 36 states where the federal
government is taking the lead on sign-ups. But the 14 states running their
own websites are likely to follow, since some had been pressing for an
extension on account of their own technical problems.
senior vice president for health policy at the Jackson Hewitt tax
preparation firm, welcomed the move.
of tax refunds appears to be making a substantial difference in the
willingness and ability of uninsured Americans to sign up for ...
coverage," Haile said.