That Health Insurance Deadline Now Comes With Wiggle Room : Shots - Health News President Obama often said that March 31 was the hard deadline to sign up for individual health insurance. But it turns out it's not so hard. Here's the latest on that slightly squishy deadline.

That Health Insurance Deadline Now Comes With Wiggle Room

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

We're just five days away from the March 31st 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.

NPR's Julie Rovner joins us in the studio to explain exactly what all this means. Hey there, Julie.


CORNISH: So let's start with a very basic question: Is Monday still the deadline?

ROVNER: Yes, it is. Next Monday, March 31st, is the last day for most individuals to sign up for health insurance for 2014 through the health exchanges or outside of them. Now, there's 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, or getting married or divorced, or getting or losing a job, then you can sign up other than during the open enrollment period.

CORNISH: And we called it wiggle room. But what exactly did the administration do today to change things?

ROVNER: Well, they actually created two more classes of people who can sign up after March 31st. One are people who are in line as of next Monday but haven't finished the process. In other words, they've started but, for some reason, haven't gotten to the end of the enrollment process which has a whole bunch of steps where you can get hung up.

CORNISH: So those people are basically like those folks who are in line to vote on Election Day. They basically get to finish because they were already in line?

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

CORNISH: So you said there were two groups. What about the others?

ROVNER: Now, those are known as complex cases. They include people who tried and, in some cases, thought they successfully signed up for insurance, but something bad happened. 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 about what it covered. Those people will also get to sign up late or, in some cases, they can re-enroll in a different insurance plan.

CORNISH: Now, all along, Republicans have criticized these various deadlines. I can't imagine that they're happy about this?

ROVNER: No, most of the deadlines associated with the law have been kind of, shall we say, fluid. And the Republicans argue that the administration is playing fast-and-loose and with limited legal authority to bend the law and make it work to their maximum advantage.

But the George W. Bush administration also kind of massaged the deadlines at the end of the first sign up period for the Medicare prescription drug law, that was eight years ago. 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, particularly when there's a penalty involved in not having insurance.

CORNISH: So, to sum it up, what exactly do people need to understand about this March 31st deadline?

ROVNER: Well, that it is still, it's next Monday, that if you don't have insurance and you can afford it, you need to at least start the process by then. But if you run into a problem, you will be able to get some extra time to get finished.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Julie Rovner. Julie, thanks so much.

ROVNER: Thank you.

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