Did a Surge in Demand Prompt This Obamacare Delay?

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Time and time again, the Obama administration has shown itself willing to be flexible with deadlines for the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchange system. Even though government officials repeatedly called the March 31 enrollment deadline “firm,” The Washington Post learned that the White House will allow additional time to Americans who say they are unable to complete applications for insurance coverage by the cutoff date.

“Open enrollment ends March 31. We are 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,” Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters told CNN. On Monday, the the federal healthcare website, Healthcare.gov, logged 1.1 million visitors, its second-busiest traffic day.

So technically the deadline has not been altered. Rather, the administration is framing the additional enrollment time as an extension. Even as recently as early this month, the Obama administration was asserting that the deadline was firm. On March 12, when Rep. Kevin Brady of the House Ways and Means Committee asked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, “Are you going to delay the open enrollment beyond March 31?” she replied, “No, sir.”

It’s expected that the official announcement to push back the enrollment date to mid-April will come Wednesday. No specific end date has been set, and Health and Human Services officials told the Post that the length of the extension will depend on the number of people that request it. For now requests can be made through Healthcare.gov but after around the middle of April, requests will only be allowed via call centers. Acceptable grounds for receiving an extension will become narrower at that time as well — those circumstances include people who have a new baby, are getting a divorce, lose a job with health insurance, or had a technical problem signing up for coverage through Healthcare.gov.

The new rules the administration has created applies to the federally facilitated exchanges operating in 36 states and essentially creates a new category of people eligible for the special enrollment period, according the report by The Washington Post.

While the March 31 deadline has not technically been delayed, the extension follows a long string of delays that have forced the Obama administration to fight against a tidal wave of criticism and political backlash that the implementation of Obamacare engendered. Of course, compared to other delays — including the postponement of the employer mandate and the extension of the deadline to purchase coverage beginning on January 1 —  this latest change is relatively minor: It adds only two or three weeks to the enrollment period. Plus, the six-month time frame was not specifically set out in the text of the Affordable Care Act. The one date that the White House refused to push back was the October 1 launch of the insurance marketplaces, even though evidence has shown that the online insurance marketplaces had major problems.

This extension is by no means surprising. Not only has the administration fallen into a pattern of delays in implementing Obamacare, but in a March 12 testimony, Sebelius foreshadowed this extension. “We have made it clear that if, through no fault of their own, they were unable to enroll, that eligibility extends to a delayed enrollment period, and they will have a special enrollment period we have the authority to grant,” she said.

Healthcare experts expected that the administration would address lower-than-expected enrollments by extending the deadline. Originally, before the October 1 launch of the marketplace system, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculated that as many as 7 million people would enroll by March 31. But after the federally created online insurance marketplaces launched with software errors and design flaws that for weeks caused hours-long wait times, prevented potential customers from creating accounts and completing the 30-step enrollment process, and sent insurers the wrong information, the CBO lowered the estimate to 6 million. According to the most recent update from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 5 million people have signed up for coverage thus far.

Several of the 14 states, and the District of Columbia, that operate their own health insurance exchanges have or are considering making similar steps.

Consumer advocates have justified the extension as necessary move to ensure that insurance shoppers have a long enough opportunity to purchase a policy. “The whole point of the thing is to get people covered,”  healthcare consultant Jon Kingsdale, who directed the insurance exchange created by the state of Massachusetts in 2006, 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.”

Yet the insurance industry has already indicated its opposition to an extension. Insurers fear that the longer the enrollment period lasts, the more likely Americans are going to wait to purchase coverage until they fall ill or have an injury — which is a practice that would undo the healthcare reform’s goal to keep insurers’ costs in check by balancing the number of expensive-to-insure individuals with those who are healthy and are in need of little medical care.

The extension has also given Republican lawmakers who are critical of the healthcare reform another reason to criticize how the Obama administration has implemented the law. In particular, opponents of the Affordable Care Act point to the fact that the new rules allow individuals to qualify for an extension by checking a blue box on Helathcare.gov, relying on an honor system.

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