The Obama administration said Wednesday night that it will give Americans who buy health insurance through new online marketplaces an extra six weeks to obtain coverage before they risk a penalty.
The revised rule means that those who buy coverage through the exchange will have until March 31 to sign up for a plan, according to an official with the Health and Human Services Department.
Administration officials said the change is unrelated to the many problems that the marketplace’s Web site, HealthCare.gov, has had in its first three weeks. Instead, they said, the shift relates to what they called a “disconnect” among dates in new rules for buying coverage.
For the first time, the sprawling 2010 law intended to revise the nation’s health-care system requires most Americans to carry insurance. Health plans sold through the exchanges will become available Jan. 1, but fines for people who don’t comply will begin after they’ve been without coverage for three consecutive months.
The confusion is this: In the initial year, the open enrollment period to buy health plans through the federal exchange — or 14 separate state ones — runs through March 31. But people who buy coverage in late March probably will not get that insurance for a month.
So under the new rule, anyone who buys coverage during the open enrollment period will avoid a penalty, whether their coverage has started by April 1 or not.
Administration officials said Wednesday that they will issue formal guidance in the next few days about the change.
An HHS official said it remains unclear whether the deadline shift will apply to Americans who buy insurance without using the exchanges.
Joanne Peters, an HHS spokeswoman, portrayed the rejiggered deadline as not touching the fundamentals of the health-care law, which is under a fresh round of criticism for its myriad technical flaws.
“The individual mandate timing has not changed,” she said. “The deadline for signing up for insurance is March 31. It was true this a.m. It is true tonight."
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.