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WEDNESDAY, March 26, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Americans who've started applying for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act but can't complete the process by the March 31 enrollment deadline will be given an extension.
The Obama administration announced the extension Tuesday evening, partly out of concern that the federal registration website, Healthcare.gov, could become overwhelmed as last-minute registrants scrambled to meet the original March 31 deadline or face a penalty in the form of a tax, the Washington Post reported.
To qualify for the extension, people simply check a blue box on the HealthCare.gov website indicating that they'd tried to sign up for insurance before the deadline. This method will be based on the honor system, the Post reported.
"We are . . . making sure that we will be ready to help consumers who may be in line by the deadline to complete enrollment -- either online or over the phone," said Julie Bataille, head of the office of communications for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The troubled unveiling of HealthCare.gov last fall is still fresh in many people's memories, as computer glitches and software problems made the website almost unusable for long periods of time. Critics of the Affordable Care Act pounced on the troubled launch, which was deeply embarrassing to President Barack Obama. The health reform law, sometimes called Obamacare, is considered Obama's signature domestic achievement.
The federal website, which serves 36 states that do not operate their own registration websites, has been operating well for months, according to White House officials. But it had more than 1 million visitors on Monday. With the prospect of high visitor traffic in the next few days, the Obama administration wants to avoid a repeat of last fall's problems with the website, the Associated Press reported.
Administration officials didn't specify how long the extended enrollment period would last.
The Obama administration recently announced that 5 million people have signed up for coverage through the federal- and state-run websites -- sometimes called marketplaces or exchanges -- since Oct. 1, short of projected enrollment. The White House is still hoping to sign up about 6 million people for 2014.
"Folks didn't know a whole lot about this [the Affordable Care Act] back in October and November when it started," said Michael Morrisey, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Lister Hill Center for Health Policy.
An uptick in enrollment in recent weeks reflects "both people getting down to business and realizing that they're supposed to get coverage and that the penalties (for not having insurance) are meaningful," Morrisey said.
With some exceptions, people who are uninsured for most of 2014 may have to pay a penalty during next year's tax season. The maximum penalty for 2014 is $95 per adult and half of that for children (up to $285 for a family of three or more) -- or up to 1 percent of household income, whichever is greater.
One of the main objectives of the Affordable Care Act is expanding access to affordable health care options. The law led to the creation of the online marketplaces, or exchanges, where people in each state and the District of Columbia may compare health plans and sign up for coverage.
The Congressional Budget Office initially projected that 7 million people would sign up for health coverage in 2014. It later lowered its estimate to 6 million.
In 2012, an estimated 47 million Americans were uninsured, 2 million fewer than in 2010, according to a report released Tuesday by the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that supports independent health care research. The reduction was likely due to a provision of the health reform law allowing many young adults to stay on their parents' insurance plans up to age 26, the report said.
Yet many uninsured people remain on the sidelines with the deadline for coverage approaching. Forty-eight percent of the uninsured aren't planning to look into the marketplaces or are unaware of them, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported.
"People seem to have a hard time believing that they're going to be eligible for the financial assistance that's available," said Katherine Hempstead, team director and senior program officer at the foundation. Other people aren't interested because they think their uninsured status will change as soon as they find a job, she said.
As the enrollment deadline draws nearer, health insurance advocates have been making a final push to make sure that people understand their options and get coverage.
"It's been very busy. A lot of our allies have been doing outreach into the community," said Terri Sterling, a director at the Idaho Community Action Network in Boise.
Idaho is one of the states where people use HealthCare.gov to shop for private insurance coverage. It's also one of 24 states that decided not to expand Medicaid in 2014, leaving 70,000 low-income Idahoans without options for coverage, Sterling said.
Families and individuals with incomes above the federal poverty level still have time to pick a marketplace plan.
People who make between 100 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level -- $11,490 to $45,960 for an individual and $23,550 to $94,200 for a family of four -- may qualify for federal tax credits to lower their insurance premiums.
Some may qualify for a reduction in their out-of-pocket expenses.
Once the enrollment deadline passes, most Americans won't have another chance to sign up for coverage until the next open enrollment period, which begins Nov. 15. Coverage purchased during that time won't take effect until 2015.
There is no cutoff date for enrolling in Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Don't know where to start to look for coverage? Morrisey suggests that people do a little "Googling" to learn about their options and find a health "navigator" who can help them enroll.
"I think it would make sense to maybe stop by a library, maybe talk to your minister, talk to family members or friends who have insurance or have gotten coverage and what the process looks like and how to go about doing it," he said.
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SOURCES: Michael Morrisey, Ph.D., director, Lister Hill Center for Health Policy, University of Alabama at Birmingham; Katherine Hempstead, Ph.D., team director and senior program officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, N.J.; Terri Sterling, director, Idaho Community Action Network, Boise; March 17, 2014, blog post, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; HealthCare.gov; Washington Post; Associated Press