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HHS grants extra time to enroll for health care

From News Services

WASHINGTON — People who’ve started applying for health insurance but aren’t able to finish before the March 31 enrollment deadline will get extra time, the Obama administration has announced.

“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,” Health and Human Services spokesman Aaron Albright said Tuesday.

The White House is scrambling to meet a goal of 6 million signed up through new online markets that offer subsidized private health insurance to people without access to coverage on the job. The website got more that 1 million visitors Monday, and the administration also wants to prevent a repeat of website problems that soured consumers last fall.

Officials said the grace period will be available to people on the honor system, meaning applicants will have to attest that special circumstances or complex cases prevented them from finishing by March 31.

It’s unclear how long the extension will last. Some have urged the administration to allow until April 15, the tax filing deadline. People who are due refunds may be willing to put some of that money toward health care premiums.

The latest tweak to the health care rollout is certain to infuriate Republican critics of President Barack Obama’s signature law. It follows delays of the law’s requirements that medium-sized to large employers provide coverage or face fines. The GOP is making repeal of the health care law its rallying cry in the fall congressional elections.

The White House had signaled last week that a grace period of some sort was in the works. Spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that people in line by the deadline would be able to complete their applications. Administration officials argue that’s not extending the deadline. They compare it to the Election Day practice of allowing people to vote if they are in line when the polls close.

The decision to grant extra time was first reported late Tuesday by The Washington Post.

The administration’s decision affects the 36 states where the federal government is taking the lead on sign-ups. The 14 states running their own websites are likely to follow, since some had been pressing for an extension on account of their own technical problems.

Brian Haile, senior vice president for health policy at the Jackson Hewitt tax preparation firm, welcomed the move.

“The disbursement of tax refunds appears to be making a substantial difference in the willingness and ability of uninsured Americans to sign up for … coverage,” Haile said.

Jackson Hewitt projects the administration can meet the goal of 6 million only if it allows people to keep signing up through April 15.

Enrollment has already crossed the 5 million mark.

At the same time, Republicans have said the Obama administration is over-reporting the number of people who have enrolled because they don’t yet know how many Americans have paid for coverage. Customers can’t complete enrollment until they pay their first premium to insurers.

Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee have said in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that administration regulatory guidance to insurers shows “there is specific information about who has paid their premium” collected by the government. They asked her to provide it “immediately.”

The health care law seeks to cover many of the nation’s 48 million uninsured people, either through private plans sold on the exchanges — often with the help of government subsidies to reduce premiums — or expanded Medicaid programs in about half the states.

“We are thrilled to see a surge of activity, with near-record levels of traffic on in recent days,” said HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters. “Our systems are ready to handle these high volumes in the remaining six days before the deadline.”

Peters said the government won’t know how many people paid their first premium, completing their enrollments, until contractors finish building an automated system allowing insurers to exchange the information with the government. Until then, the data “is neither final nor complete,” she said.

“When we have accurate and reliable data regarding premium payments, we will make the information available,” Peters said.

The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.


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