The tens of thousands of people with a history of serious illnesses who are enrolled in high-risk insurance pools created under the Affordable Care Act will have two more months before they lose that coverage, the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday.
The federal high-risk pools, which started in 2010, have helped people with pre-existing conditions obtain health coverage because they were often turned away by commercial insurers.
Late last month federal officials said they would keep the high-risk pools that were supposed to end in December open until the end of January. The idea was to give people more time to enroll in health plans through state and federal exchanges, many of which have been riddled with problems.
Now the pools will stay open until the end of March. HHS spokeswoman Erin Shields Britt said in an email Tuesday that "as part of our continuing effort to help smooth consumers' transition into Marketplace coverage, we are allowing those covered by [the pools] additional time to shop for new coverage while they receive the ongoing care and treatment they need."
Enrollees in the high-risk pools must select a new plan by March 15 to avoid a gap in coverage, according to HHS. Open enrollment for the health law ends March 31. The current enrollment in both state and federal pools is less than 30,000, down from 85,000 in October, according to HHS.
The extension is one in a series that federal officials have granted to help consumers enroll in the health law's online marketplaces, or exchanges, after website problems frustrated millions of potential enrollees.
Beginning this year under the health law, insurers are no longer able to reject people or charge them higher rates as a result of their medical history.
The federal announcement means that some states that run their own pools have the option of continuing coverage through the end of March.
Consumer advocacy groups welcomed the extension since many people in the high-risk pools are receiving regular treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
"Today's announcement ensures that people with pre-existing conditions such as a history of cancer have life-saving coverage ... through the end of open enrollment," said Steve Weiss, senior director, communications and media advocacy for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
The high-risk pools have helped more than 135,000 Americans since late 2010. The federal program suspended acceptance of new enrollees in last February, while state-based pools closed their doors in March because of funding concerns.
Staff writer Phil Galewitz contributed to this article.