White House Gives Another Day For Health Exchange Sign Ups

People who are uninsured now have one more day to sign up for health coverage that start on the first of 2014. On Monday, the White House extended the deadline to sign up for plans under the Affordable Care Act from midnight on Dec. 23 to Christmas Eve at midnight, describing the move as a way to accommodate people in different time zones.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel and we begin the hour with a deadline, a moving deadline for people who want a new health insurance plan to start January 1. Today was supposed to be the last day to sign up through healthcare.gov. But yet again, the Obama administration has made a last minute change.

Now, people have until midnight tomorrow, Christmas Eve, to select a health plan. NPR's Julie Rovner joins, hi, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: So who, more specifically, does this effect?

ROVNER: Well, it's an important question because there has been some confusion about it. This December 23 deadline, which is now December 24, applies to people in the 36 states where the federal government is running the program so they need to healthcare.gov to sign up. December 23 is also the deadline in most, but not all, of the 14 states that are running their own exchanges.

Maryland, Minnesota and Rhode Island have later deadlines. Maryland's is December 27. Minnesota and Rhode Island are both December 31. Oregon, which still hasn't gotten its website operational and has done everything on paper had a deadline that came and went much earlier this month.

SIEGEL: Well, what prompted the federal government to grant this one-day extension?

ROVNER: Well, from what the administration is reporting, it's because so many people have been showing up over these last few days to sign up, a million just over the last weekend. Call center messages are telling people to be sure their cell or cordless phones are fully charged because of long waits. Now, this was all completely predictable.

Everyone knew there would be a rush just before the deadline for January 1 coverage and there'll be another rush just before March 31. That's the last date to buy coverage before you'll be liable for a tax penalty for not having insurance. Originally, the administration said the extension was only for people who started the process today.

That if you got in and got stuck or if the website got overloaded and they had to ask you to come back, then you could finish tomorrow. But in reprogramming computers to let those people come back tomorrow, basically, they'll let anybody show up tomorrow and enroll in a health plan. So while the administration is still officially saying that the deadline is today, it really is tomorrow.

SIEGEL: OK. I think I follow you. Tomorrow is the deadline for choosing a health plan, but you have to pay for it before your coverage is official, right?

ROVNER: That's right. And that's another deadline that's changed. Originally, you were supposed to pay your first month's premium by December 31 in order to have coverage January 1, but last week, most insurers agreed to let people pay as late as January 10 and their coverage would be retroactive to the 1st of the year and it's important for people to remember that while you sign up at healthcare.gov or at a state website, you pay your premium directly to the insurance company.

SIEGEL: So Julie, what do we know about how many people have actually signed up so far?

ROVNER: Well, we know that there are a whole lot more than there were early on, although it's still much fewer than were originally projected. President Obama said at his news conference Friday that more than half a million people signed up for health plans through the website during the first three weeks of December. That was nearly half again more than October and November combined.

Combined with the state websites, almost a million people have signed up. That's still well short of the more than 3 million people who were expected to sign up by now, but still we're only halfway through the signup period. There's a long way still to go.

SIEGEL: OK. NPR's Julie Rovner. Thanks

ROVNER: Thank you.

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