The deadline for Americans to purchase health insurance as required under the Affordable Care Act was extended by eight days last week as federal officials continue to wrestle with the rocky launch of its overwhelmed online marketplace, HealthCare.gov.
On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services pushed back the deadline from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23 to allow more time for the uninsured and those whose insurance has been canceled to sign up for health coverage that would be in place by Jan. 1. The first premium payment on policies purchased by the new deadline would not be due to insurers until Dec. 31.
Why the tweak
Under Obamacare's "individual mandate," most Americans will be required to obtain health insurance by 2014 or face a tax penalty based on their income. The open enrollment period for new coverage runs through March 2014, but those who want to make sure they have coverage in place for the new year now have until Dec. 23 to allow insurers time to process their application.
Shopping for affordable health insurance has been an exercise in frustration for many Americans since the new online health care marketplaces, or exchanges, opened Oct. 1. According to HHS, just over 100,000 people successfully purchased an exchange health policy, and another 400,000 outlasted the overwhelmed website to enroll in Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program since the portals went live. The federal site is handling enrollment for the 36 states that either chose not to construct their own exchange or did not have one ready in time for the enrollment period.
While sign-ups have quickened in recent weeks as technicians tinker to launch a faster HealthCare.gov site by Dec. 1, the administration faces an uphill battle to reach its target goal of insuring 7 million consumers during the inaugural open enrollment. The tech team's goal is to upgrade the portal to accommodate 500,000 visitors at peak times and 800,000 visitors per day.
Should the site bog down, a "queuing system" will replace the familiar spinning clock icon, enabling users to request an email notification when the site is ready to resume their application.
Other attempts to ease the pressure
"We realize that many consumers who are seeking coverage in January may have experienced frustration with the site," admits Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "This extension will allow consumers more time to review plan options, to talk with their families, providers or enrollment assisters and to enroll in a plan."
In addition to the deadline extension, the administration has been working with health insurance companies to enable them to sign up consumers who want to apply for the federal health insurance subsidies, previously available only through the health exchanges. Pilot direct-enrollment programs launched in Florida, Ohio and Texas last week.
Despite the recent uproar over widespread year-end policy cancellations that could raise insurance rates for some, a new report by Families USA, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer group, says the issue has been blown out of proportion. The group's figures show that 7 in 10 of the roughly 15 million working-age Americans who buy their own health insurance will qualify for government subsidies to make it more affordable under Obamacare, while 0.6 of the U.S. population, or about 1.5 million consumers, may face higher rates due to a policy cancellation.
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