In light of the technical problems afflicting HealthCare.gov, Obama administration officials are planning to extend the amount of time uninsured individuals can enroll in coverage without facing penalties under the individual mandate, administration officials confirm.
Under current law, the initial enrollment period ends on March 31, even though the individual mandate goes into effect on Jan. 1. The government can use “short coverage gaps” of up to three months before imposing the penalty, meaning that individuals have until March 1 to become enrolled in coverage if they hope to escape the mandate’s fines.
But to meet that deadline, the Associated Press had estimated that uninsured individuals and families must actually sign up for insurance by Feb. 15 — it takes two weeks to process the application and the coverage kicks in on the first of every month. People who signed up after that date could therefore be penalized.
“There is a disconnect between the open enrollment and individual responsibility time frames in the first year only. The Administration is working to align those policies and will issue guidance soon. This guidance will ensure that if you sign up for insurance by the end of March, you will not face a penalty,” an HHS official told ThinkProgress. NBC News reports that individuals would have an additional 6 weeks to buy policies without being penalized.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had indicated that the administration is considering the realignment on Monday. On Wednesday afternoon, he also appeared to rule out delaying the mandate, arguing that if the requirement to purchase coverage is postponed, “That means that if you’re that single mom who’s a breast cancer survivor who has been anticipating the day that she would be able to get affordable health insurance…you’re telling them, wait another year — and wait another year because the people behind the proposal actually want to make you wait forever.” “That’s not acceptable. It’s not going to happen,” he said at his daily press briefing.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers — including prominent Democrats — have asked the administration to extend the open enrollment period beyond March. 31. This would give people — particularly the younger and healthier beneficiaries officials are hoping to attract — more time to sign-up for coverage and wouldn’t conflict with the assessment of mandate penalties, which the government does not collect until 2015. However, while the law grants the Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius discretion over establishing the dates of open enrollment, it required her to define the the initial enrollment period by July 1, 2012. Therefore, it appears that she cannot extend the initial period beyond March 31 (for coverage that begins in 2014) without legislative action.