As the clock begins to wind down, nervous White House officials are acknowledging they can’t stick to existing Obamacare deadlines while still enrolling enough people to make the program financially viable. Their challenge has been compounded by continuous problems with the troubled Healthcare.gov website.
Earlier this month, the administration pushed back the deadline from Dec 15 to Dec 23 for signing up for insurance coverage that would take effect Jan 1. But even that change already is giving way to a series of exceptions that will grant people even more time to enroll and pay their premiums – or even just part of the premium if they are scrounging for money.
Under this new, seemingly desperate approach announced on Thursday by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, people who have had problems signing up for insurance through the new federal or state operated exchanges will be allowed to enroll after the deadline and still qualify for coverage effective at the start of the new year. Moreover, consumers who haven’t yet paid their first monthly premiums – essential to activating their new policies -- will have until at least the end of this year and possibly beyond.
"There's still ample time for folks to research their options, talk things over with their families and select a plan," Sebelius told reporters.
Meanwhile, the White House is urging insurance companies to accept payments beyond Jan. 1. So far, AETNA said it would honor the White House’s request and accept payments until Jan 8, according to officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
HHS is putting added pressure on insurers by asking that they allow customers to temporarily continue filling prescriptions covered by a previous plan. The government also requested that insurers treat out-of-network providers as in-network providers in cases of emergency.
Finally, Sebelius announced that the Pre- Existing Condition Insurance Plan, a temporary federal program that insures 86,000 people with serious medical conditions, will be extended by an additional month. The $5 billion temporary program created under the law was set to expire in January.
The latest delays and exceptions are intended to assist consumers who were prevented from signing up for health coverage by the troubled website. This more lax approach is also aimed at preventing gaps in coverage for the more than 4 million people whose existing policies were recently cancelled under the new law. Even short coverage gaps could be immensely problematic, especially for people with seriously health problems, who wouldn’t be able to access their medications or treatments.
Although the steps are meant to reduce problems, insurance companies say they might actually make things worse by confusing consumers and complicating the industry’s process.
"With only weeks to go before coverage begins, continued changes to the rules and guidance could exacerbate the challenges," Karen Ignagni, president of the industry trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, said in a statement.
This is just the latest in a wave of delays stemming from Obamacare’s disastrous rollout that began Oct. 1. Just last month, the Obama administration delayed the SHOP application on the federal exchange’s website, which allows small businesses to sign up for insurance online.
That feature won’t be ready for another year. Likewise, the Spanish-language function on Healthcare.gov is also months behind schedule. And while the administration claims the website is finally working smoothly for the vast majority of users, it’s unclear whether it will be able to handle a crush of visitors CMS officials are expecting later this month,
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