If you've been dragging your feet and scratching your head on whether to throw down for health insurance or risk the tax consequences, you now have a little more time to think about it.
A new grace period
Federal health officials have confirmed that they're going to bend a bit on that March 31 deadline to sign up for health insurance as required under the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act.
Just one catch: To take the heat off, you need to at least start the application process by Monday on HealthCare.gov, which serves as the default online exchange for 36 states that opted not to create their own. Once you do, you'll be able to click a blue box on the site that confirms that you tried to apply for coverage by next Monday's deadline, thus buying you until mid-April to complete the process.
A similar grace period has also either been granted or is under consideration in the 14 states that operate their own health exchanges.
Bracing for an 11th-hour rush
Spokeswoman Julie Bataille with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services provided details about the administration's accommodation to stragglers Tuesday night. "We 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," she told The Washington Post.
Administration officials say the move is designed to offset an expected last-minute rush for coverage that could swamp the system and leave some latecomers in limbo. And you won't have to explain your foot-dragging to the feds; the administration says it will take your word that you need the extra time and will not attempt to verify your need for an extension.
Officials say the exact deadline for the extension period will be set based on how many applicants request it. However, by mid-April, the little blue box to request an extension will disappear.
Inviting new criticism
The Obama administration will likely come under fire from health reform opponents for getting squishy with yet another deadline. But health care officials stress that the goal is to get 6 million Americans signed up for affordable health insurance during the inaugural six-month open enrollment of the exchanges.
"The whole point of the thing is to get people covered," says Jon Kingsdale, a health care consultant and former director of Massachusetts' insurance exchange. He told the Post: "In the first year, there has been so much confusion, I think it's only natural there will be people who just don't feel as if they fully understood what the law was and what they were supposed to do and that the opportunity would close."
What do you think? Is a little leeway in order? Or should a deadline be a deadline?
A Bankrate survey found most Americans were skeptical about the March 31 cutoff. See: Do you know the Obamacare penalty deadline?
Follow me on Twitter: @omnisaurus.
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