Today is officially the last day to sign up for health insurance in order to get coverage in 2014 and avoid a fine for being uninsured under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). A slew of exemptions have effectively extended the deadline indefinitely, however.
If you’ve started an application by 11:59PM tonight, you can complete it after the deadline and still receive coverage in 2014. Even if you haven’t started an application by tonight, you’re allowed to apply after the deadline if you experienced website errors, were given misinformation by an ACA worker, were the victim of exceptional circumstances, or fit into one of another seven categories. These claims will not be audited and there is no penalty for lying. "Most people are truthful when applying for those benefits," Julie Bataille, the director of communications for the Health and Human Services department that oversees the insurance marketplace, told reporters last week.
The leniency is supposed to encourage signups
This "special enrollment period" does not have an end date yet. It could be a few days, a week, or longer. The White House says it will announce the end of the special enrollment period once it knows how many people are requesting exemptions. However, you must apply by the 15th of April in order to get coverage starting in May.
The leniency is intended to encourage signups. The program fell short of official estimates, which the White House has blamed in part on the atrocious technical issues that seriously impaired the online marketplace Healthcare.gov during its first two months. The error rates and long response times on the website have since been resolved, and most users — but not all — have been able to complete the application without hitting bugs.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) revised its estimates downward after the troubled launch of Healthcare.gov, projecting that a million fewer people would not get health insurance in 2014 because the website didn’t work. It’s difficult to say just how much the technical problems with Healthcare.gov affected the number of signups, however.
It’s hard to say just how much the technical problems with Healthcare.gov affected signups
Last week, President Barack Obama announced that 6 million people had enrolled in plans, in line with the CBO’s revised estimate. That number was originally supposed to be 7 million, which HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius last year said was what "success looks like." But because of the difficulties with the website, the administration is touting 6 million as a huge success.
But would more people have signed up by now if the website had worked immediately? Not necessarily, says Jessica McCarron, a spokesperson for Enroll America, an organization dedicated to getting people enrolled in health insurance. "While the technical challenges we faced in the beginning of open enrollment were certainly frustrating, we’ve found that they haven’t inhibited consumers from signing up," she says. "Lack of awareness about financial assistance – not early technical problems with HealthCare.Gov – was the biggest obstacle to enrollment."
Those who do not sign up by the end of the special enrollment period may not be able to sign up for insurance again until the next open enrollment period opens in October. Some insurance providers may choose to offer enrollment before then anyway, but it's not guaranteed. If you choose not to get health insurance, you’re required to pay 1 percent of your yearly household income or $95 per person, whichever is higher. The fines will increase next year.
Healthcare.gov is having a crush of visitors in the 11th hour
The administration always expected that there would be a surge of signups just before the deadline, and timed its strongest marketing efforts — especially toward 18–35-year-olds — for the month leading up to the deadline. President Barack Obama’s interview two weeks ago with comedian Zach Galafinakis on the cult hit show "Between Two Ferns" is now its most-viewed episode with 20 million hits, beating Justin Bieber, and was the top traffic referrer to Healthcare.gov that day.
After the extra grace period, the program may even get close to the initial estimate of 7 million signups, depending on how many people roll in after the deadline. About 20,000 people requested a similar extension after December 23rd, which was the deadline for coverage starting in January, and Healthcare.gov has seen a crush of visitors in the 11th hour.
There were 2 million visits to the website a day on Saturday and Sunday, according to the administration, and the volume caused the site to go down this morning. The call center fielded 2.5 million calls last week, more than the entire month of February. Wait times at the call center were significant over the weekend — 30 and 20 minutes on Saturday and Sunday respectively when The Verge tried to speak to a representative. "We are currently experiencing very long wait times due to a surge in demand for marketplace coverage as the end of open enrollment approaches," a recording explained. "If you’ve already called and left your telephone number for us to call you back, don’t worry. We are holding your place in line and will contact you after April 1st to help you finish enrolling. You will still get coverage for 2014."