By Mary Agnes Carey
Consumers will have an extra week — until Dec. 23 – to enroll in health insurance coverage that begins Jan. 1, Obama administration officials said Friday.
Millions of consumers have been frustrated by their inability to sign up for coverage through healthcare.gov, the federal website for residents of 36 states, which went public Oct. 1. While the administration has said the site will work smoothly for most customers by Nov. 30, some advocates had been concerned that consumers still might not have enough time to sign up for coverage that would take effect Jan. 1. The previous deadline was Dec. 15.
In a call with reporters, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Communications Director Julie Bataille said the extension would apply only for consumers seeking coverage effective Jan. 1. In future months, consumers would have to enroll by the 15th of the month for coverage to begin on the 1st of the following month. Open enrollment continues until March 31.
Bataille said the date change was done “in consultation with” insurers.
Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, said the deadline extension “makes it more challenging to process enrollments in time for coverage to begin on Jan. 1. Ultimately, it will depend on how many people enroll in those last few days. It is also important to keep in mind that consumers need to pay their first month’s premium before their coverage can begin.”
Consumers have until Dec. 31 to pay for health insurance that begins Jan. 1, Bataille said.
Jeffrey Zients, the former Obama budget official who is overseeing repairs to healthcare.gov, stood by the pledge he made late last month that for most visitors, the website would work smoothly by Nov. 30, which is just one week away.
“The system will not work perfectly but it will operate smoothly for the vast majority of users,” he said.
Fixes include a new feature that sends consumers an email notification when spikes in website demand create access issues. Te emails indicate “a better time to come back to the site,” Zients said. By month’s end, he said the site should be able to accommodate up to 50,000 users at any one time — as originally envisioned — and 800,000 each day, he said.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind here that this is not a simple website,” he said. “The system needs to process the millions upon millions of unique circumstances that consumers present. It needs to determine eligibility for hundreds of state and county programs and all their permutations. And it needs to factor in subsidy levels based on family size, income and plan selection.”
To accommodate repair work, healthcare.gov will down for maintenance from 9 p.m. EST on Saturday, Nov. 23 through 9 a.m. EST Sunday, Nov. 24, Bataille said.
Friday’s announcement giving more time for consumers to enroll in health plans follows the administration announcement late Thursday that it is pushing back the start of health law’s 2014 enrollment period next year to Nov. 15 from Oct. 15.
“The reason for doing that is to make sure the [insurers] have the benefit of more time to evaluate their experience from this year and take that into account as they determine what would be necessary for their 2015 rates,” Bataille said. The delay also places the enrollment period beyond the 2014 congressional elections.