By Karen Pallarito
WEDNESDAY, March 26, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Americans who've started applying for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act but can't complete the process by the March 31 enrollment deadline will be given an extension.
The Obama administration announced the extension Tuesday evening, partly out of concern that the federal registration website, Healthcare.gov, could become overwhelmed as last-minute registrants scrambled to meet the original March 31 deadline or face a penalty in the form of a tax, the Washington Post reported.
To qualify for the extension, people simply check a blue box on the HealthCare.gov website indicating that they'd tried to sign up for insurance before the deadline. This method will be based on the honor system, the Post reported.
"We 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," said Julie Bataille, head of the office of communications for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The troubled unveiling of HealthCare.gov last fall is still fresh in many people's memories, as computer glitches and software problems made the website almost unusable for long periods of time. Critics of the Affordable Care Act pounced on the troubled launch, which was deeply embarrassing to President Barack Obama. The health reform law, sometimes called Obamacare, is considered Obama's signature domestic achievement.
The federal website, which serves 36 states that do not operate their own registration websites, has been operating well for months, according to White House officials. But it had more than 1 million visitors on Monday. With the prospect of high visitor traffic in the next few days, the Obama administration wants to avoid a repeat of last fall's problems with the website, the Associated Press reported.
Administration officials didn't specify how long the extended enrollment period would last.
The Obama administration recently announced that 5 million people have signed up for coverage through the federal- and state-run websites -- sometimes called marketplaces or exchanges -- since Oct. 1, short of projected enrollment. The White House is still hoping to sign up about 6 million people for 2014.
"Folks didn't know a whole lot about this [the Affordable Care Act] back in October and November when it started," said Michael Morrisey, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Lister Hill Center for Health Policy.
An uptick in enrollment in recent weeks reflects "both people getting down to business and realizing that they're supposed to get coverage and that the penalties (for not having insurance) are meaningful," Morrisey said.
With some exceptions, people who are uninsured for most of 2014 may have to pay a penalty during next year's tax season. The maximum penalty for 2014 is $95 per adult and half of that for children (up to $285 for a family of three or more) -- or up to 1 percent of household income, whichever is greater.