By Susan Cornwell and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For most Americans who don’t have health insurance, Monday is the deadline to sign up for coverage starting on January 1 under President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.
For others, it’s not a deadline.
There is a “hardship” exception for some that permits them not to sign up any kind of health insurance at all without facing a penalty – the hardship being problems they’ve encountered with Obamacare and its malfunctioning website HealthCare.gov.
There will also be a “good faith exception” for others, according to a senior Obama administration official.
“We’ll have a special enrollment period,” the official said last week, for “all those who make a good faith effort to get enrolled by the deadline” but fail to do so.
The official did not say how the government would determine whether or not the effort was made in good faith.
Still others may simply get a break from insurance companies, which the administration has urged to be flexible with people who miss the deadline.
Such is the uncertain state of “Obamacare” as it approaches what was originally supposed to be a defining moment – a signup deadline that would provide the first real test of the viability of the healthcare program brought into law by the Affordable Care Act.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the original deadline for obtaining medical coverage was December 15. That was extended to December 23 after the federal government’s website, HealthCare.gov, proved dysfunctional and sometimes non-functional.
The administration has reserved the right to change the deadline again “should exceptional circumstances pose barriers to consumers” enrolling on or before Monday.
Obama said on Friday that one million people had enrolled for new insurance plans under the law through HealthCare.gov, which serves 36 states, and 14 state-run marketplaces.
Many more enrollments are a major priority for Obama’s signature healthcare reform, which officials are still hoping will help millions of uninsured and under-insured Americans finally to obtain medical coverage by the end of March.
GAPS IN COVERAGE?
It is not known how many consumers may have no insurance coverage during periods of 2014 because they failed to sign up on HealthCare.gov by Monday.
Some of the 14 states running their own healthcare exchanges have extended their sign-up deadlines past December 23.
On Thursday, the administration announced that if people’s old insurance plans were canceled because of new standards under the law, they can claim a “hardship” exemption to the requirement that all Americans must have coverage by March 31 or face penalties that start at $95.
So some of these people may not sign up.
The Obama administration says it is trying to be flexible, but some Republican critics of the law say the frequent delays and changes have muddied the waters and confused people.
“With no clarity as to when people should sign up and who they should pay and when, it’s a virtual certainty that many consumers will find themselves uncovered for a period of time through no fault of their own,” Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said last week.
Administration officials said on Friday there are fewer than 500,000 people who have received cancellation notices from their insurance companies and have not yet found alternatives. Some were “auto-enrolled” in other plans by their insurance companies, the officials said.
The pace of sign-ups has picked up since October and November when technical problems crippled the HealthCare.gov website. Anyone who tried the website in October and November and became stuck has been getting attention from the administration.
Officials sent more than two million emails to people who could not advance through the website. They have also made more than 600,000 phone calls to consumers and mailed notices to hundreds of thousands of people, officials said.
“We are confident that we are doing everything we can so that individuals know what their options are to get coverage, whether it is at the marketplace or seeking it through the private insurers,” said the senior official.
(Reporting By Susan Cornwell. Editing by Fred Barbash and Christopher Wilson)