About that deadline...

The Obama administration will give people shopping for health insurance through the federally facilitated healthcare.gov an extension to sign up. The deadline for open enrollment was to be March 31, this coming Monday, but now consumers who began to apply for a plan but don’t complete the process by the deadline will be able to ask for an extension until around mid-April. People who sign up via the extension won’t face a penalty via the individual mandate. The Washington Post broke the news last night

This change applies to the 36 states with federally run marketplaces (that includes Arkansas, which has a federal-state partnership). States that run their own marketplace will make their own decisions regarding enrollment deadlines. 


The news comes after administration officials had repeatedly called the March 31 deadline firm, though it hardly comes as a surprise. To maximize enrollment, it made sense both to publicly trumpet a firm deadline until the last minute and then offer some flexibility given the initial hiccups from healthcare.gov. (Administration officials cited, as the reason for the extension, a possible surge in the final days of open enrollment potentially, potentially making it difficult to fully complete the enrollment process in the final days.) 

Though technically the extension is supposed to apply only to those who had started an application, in practice anyone will be able to get more time and sign up during the extension period, as the Post reports:


Under the new rules, people will be able to qualify for an extension by checking a blue box on HealthCare.gov to indicate that they tried to enroll before the deadline. This method will rely on an honor system; the government will not try to determine whether the person is telling the truth.

It will be as simple as getting an extension on a tax return, in other words, and it’s available to anyone. Though technically this is a new special enrollment period rather than a change in the enrollment deadline, it will function like the latter. 

Anti-Obamacare critics will of course howl about ANOTHER OBAMACARE DELAY!! But this one makes sense (and it’s in the law, see below) — in Year One of enrollment, particularly given the botched rollout, giving people a few extra weeks to sign up is probably the right thing to do. The risk here is for future years. The limited enrollment period in Obamacare is designed to avoid having people simply wait until they’re sick to sign up (remember, because of Obamacare, insurance companies can no longer discriminate based on pre-existing conditions). That enrollment period, three months this year, will be smaller in future years. If people believe that extensions are inevitable in the future, it may hamper carriers’ ability to get the healthy folks they need signed up during the limited enrollment period (which could in turn leave folks uncovered if they miss the window). 


Back in November, University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley previewed how a possible extension of the deadline might work over at the Incidental Economist blog, and this sounds like what the administration is up to. They’re using a power clearly granted by the text of the Affordable Care Act to establish “special enrollment periods.”  

***Note: this has nothing to do with the Arkansas private option, which has no enrollment deadlines — eligible beneficiaries can sign up any time.