White House extends ‘Individual Mandate’ Deadline

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Barack Obama

WASHINGTON D.C. – The Obama administration is giving individuals who buy health insurance through government-run marketplaces until the end of March to enroll in a plan without a penalty, an administration official said.

The administration plans to issue guidelines soon to clear up confusion over deadlines under President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, according to the official, who asked for anonymity Wednesday because the change hadn’t been formally announced.

The open enrollment period extends from Oct. 1 to March 31. Under the law, anyone who isn’t covered for three months or longer faces a financial penalty for not having insurance. In order for the insurance to take effect, uninsured Americans would have to sign up by Feb. 15 to avoid facing fines.

The change effectively gives individuals an extra six weeks to enroll.

Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, said via Twitter that the “individual mandate timing hasn’t changed.” The deadline to get insurance remains March 31.

Enrollments through online insurance exchanges, a central part of the healthcare law that was Obama’s signature legislative achievement, have been plagued by technical issues on the HealthCare.gov website since its debut on Oct. 1.

The difficulties have spurred congressional hearings and calls from some congressional Republicans for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to resign.

Obama, who said this week he’s frustrated by the website’s flaws, has drafted healthcare entrepreneur and adviser Jeffrey Zients to lead the effort to fix the process. The government also is bringing outside technical specialists to assist.

Sebelius and other administration officials met Wednesday at the White House with the heads of WellPoint Inc., Aetna Inc., and at least 10 other insurers to discuss correcting flaws in how data from the marketplaces are transferred to the companies.

House Republicans have seized on the technical defects with the exchanges to renew a push to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

So far, the White House has resisted GOP pleas to delay the requirement that individuals purchase insurance — though officials have expressed frustration with the technical problems.

It was one of the demands House Republicans tried to make Obama accept as their price for ending the recent government shutdown — without success.

The law allows for “short coverage gaps” of up to three months before imposing the penalty, the report said.

But because the new health policies take effect on the first day of each month, in order to be covered by March 31, people would actually need to have insurance by March 1. And since it takes up to two weeks to process insurance applications, consumers would have to apply by Feb. 15.

The report said the Obama administration has recognized there’s a “disconnect” between the actual and effective deadlines — and is working to revise its current policies making sure the two deadlines line up.

The delay has been gaining traction with a number of lawmakers, including at least one key Democrat.

“Allowing extra time for consumers is critically important so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the website, survey their options, and enroll,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, said in a letter to the White House Tuesday. “If an individual is unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems with enrollment, they should not be penalized because of lack of coverage.”

And Wednesday night, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said on Fox News he is working on a bill with Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia to delay Obamacare’s individual mandate for a year.

Others don’t think a delay will be needed,  The Washington Times reported.

“I really don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t think the website will still be down in February. But if it is, the secretary [Sebelius] so far has shown a great deal of flexibility in creating ‘hardship exceptions.’ If people can’t get health insurance, they can’t get health insurance,” Timothy Jost, a professor and researcher of health care law at Washington and Lee University, told The Washington Times.

“I think it would be within her discretion to issue some kind of blanket exception. I think that would be possible.”

But Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, is pushing legislation to delay the mandate until the website is fully functional and consumers are able to reliably access it and seek insurance.

Other Republicans are echoing that call.

“The healthcare law’s disastrous rollout has created not only a competence question for the administration, but it has again raised the issue of fairness,” said Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health. “Forcing Americans to purchase a product that is too expensive and not accessible is unacceptable, unrealistic and unfair.”

House Speaker John Boehner said Republicans would use their oversight powers to conduct hearings into problems with the main federal insurance exchange website, as well as other problems with the law, including reports that it is causing employers to drop their own healthcare plans.

“Whether it’s Obamacare or issues with the Department of Defense, it’s our job to hold them accountable. And when it comes to Obamacare, there’s a lot to be held accountable,” Boehner said.