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Wednesday, March 26, 2014 - 1:15pm

That Health Insurance Deadline Now Comes With Wiggle Room

Updated: 8 months ago.
Christine Moyer checks out options at a health insurance enrollment fair on March 18 in San Francisco.

We're just five days away from the March 31 deadline to sign up for individual health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. For weeks, administration officials, including the president, have insisted that there would be no extensions to the scheduled end of the six-month open enrollment period.

But now there's some wiggle room. Let's review, shall we?

Start with the key question: Is Monday still the deadline?

Yes. Next Monday, March 31, is the last day for most individuals to sign up for health insurance for 2014 through the health exchanges or outside of them. But there have always been a bunch of exceptions. If you're eligible for Medicaid or the children's health insurance program, you can sign up anytime. And if you experience a life change moving, getting married or divorced, or getting or losing a job, then you can sign up at times other than during the open enrollment period.

So what exactly did the administration do today to change things?

They created two more classes of people who can sign up after March 31. One group is people who are in the process of enrolling as of next Monday but haven't finished the process. They've started but for some reason haven't completed sign-up. There are a bunch of steps where you can get hung up.

So those people are like those in line to vote on Election Day. They get to finish because they were there?

Exactly. And it's worth noting that this is also what the administration did back in December, when people were scrambling to sign up for coverage that would begin Jan. 1. They didn't extend the deadline itself, but they did let people who had begun the process finish it, over several days.

You said there were two groups. What about the other?

That group includes complex cases. They include people who tried and in some cases thought they successfully signed up, but something didn't work. Their information might not have gotten through to the insurance company, or they might have incorrectly been told they were eligible for Medicaid, or they were given incorrect information about the plan when they chose it.

Those people will also get to sign up late, or in some cases re-enroll in a different plan.

Republicans are not happy about all this, are they?

No, most of the deadlines associated with the law have been kind of, shall we say, fluid. Republicans argue that the administration is playing fast and loose and with limited legal authority to bend the law to make it work to their maximum advantage. But the George W. Bush administration also massaged the deadlines at the end of the first sign-up period for the Medicare prescription drug law. So this isn't the first time we've seen this sort of thing.

And it's clear the Obama administration thinks it will be better to be criticized for playing with the deadline than for preventing people who are trying to sign up for health insurance from getting it.

So when's that deadline again?

It's still next Monday. If you don't have insurance and you can afford it, you need to at least start the process by then. Then you'll be able to get some extra time to finish.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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