Deadline extended for health-insurance sign-ups
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration said Wednesday night that it would give Americans who buy health insurance through new online marketplaces an extra six weeks to obtain coverage before they risk a penalty.
The announcement 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 Department of Health and Human Services.
Administration officials said the new deadline was unrelated to the many technical problems that the marketplace's website, HealthCare.gov, has had in its first three weeks of operation. Instead, they said, the move is designed to clear up confusion about when people would face a penalty under the 2010 health-care law.
Under the law, most Americans are required to have insurance by Jan. 1, although the open enrollment period for the federal exchange and state ones runs through the end of March. The fines begin after a three-month grace period. The question has been whether people must be covered by March 31 or merely have signed up by then - because health policies typically don't start right away.
The administration made clear Wednesday night that people who buy coverage at any point during the open enrollment period will not pay a penalty.
It is the latest sign that the health-care law remains a moving target, even after the federal insurance marketplace has faced myriad problems that have frustrated many people trying to sign up for coverage.
Contractors and others have begun assigning blame for the website troubles, and the fault-finding will get its most extensive public airing Thursday, when four of the contractors involved in the project will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In the written testimony submitted to the panel in advance, CGI Federal, the main contractor on the project, takes partial blame for the shortcomings. But it also notes that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an agency within HHS, was the "ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance" of the site. And it blames a piece created by another contractor, Quality Software Services (QSSI), for the initial bottleneck.
QSSI built part of the online registration system that crashed shortly after the Oct. 1 launch and locked out many people for days. In a statement, the company counters that it was not the only one responsible for the registration system, which is now working.
"There are a number of other components to the registration system, all of which must work together seamlessly to ensure registration," said Matt Stearns, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group, the parent company for QSSI. "The [QSSI-built] tool has been working well for weeks."
But both contractors are likely to be taken to task by Republican and Democratic committee members.