For the second time this week, the White House pushed back the cut off date for consumers to purchase a health plan through federal exchanges in order to get coverage by the first of next month.
The deadline was supposed to be Christmas Eve at midnight–already, a one-day extension of the previous Dec. 23 deadline. But on Tuesday, the Obama administration announced a special enrollment period for some Americans who failed to sign up by Dec. 24.
“Sometimes despite your best efforts, you might have run into delays caused by heavy traffic to HealthCare.gov, maintenance periods, or other issues with our systems that prevented you from finishing the process on time,” read a blog post announcing the new grace period on Healthcare.gov. “If this happened to you, don’t worry–we still may be able to help you get covered as soon as January 1.”
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS,) the agency overseeing the health care law’s rollout, explained that those who began, but failed to complete their enrollment by the Christmas Eve cutoff date could call the Marketplace call center any day this week besides Dec. 25 to finish signing up for Jan. 1 coverage. From there, a customer service representative can walk applicants through the final steps of the process – like paying their bill. Anyone who began the process of selecting a plan after Christmas will receive coverage as of February 1, said a separate release from CMS.
“Our highest priority is making sure that everyone who wants to enroll to have health care coverage by January 1 is able to do so, particularly since consumers had a hard time accessing HealthCare.gov in October and November,” said Julie Bataille, director of CMS’ Office of Communications, in a statement.
Bataille also announced record numbers for site visits and calls ahead of the Christmas Eve deadline, as consumers rushed to complete their applications. Two million people visited HealthCare.gov on Dec. 23, according to CMS, and more than 250,000 reached out to the call center. Additionally, more than 129,000 people provided emails on the 23rd at HealthCare.gov as part of the advanced queuing system.
“We see this intense traffic as a sign that people are eager for affordable health insurance,” said Bataille.
While the White House insists the move was not a “blanket extension,” but rather an effort to assist individuals on a case by case basis, it did little to quell the concerns of insurance providers.
“The goal posts keep moving,” said William G. Schiffbauer, a lawyer who represents insurance companies, to the New York Times Tuesday. “That raises questions about whether insurers can collect premiums in a timely manner to pay claims from doctors and hospitals.”
The delays, when paired with low enrollment numbers over the first two months, may have also taken a toll on the Democratic brand ahead of the midterm elections, now less than a year away. According to a CNN/ORC International survey released Thursday, Republican congressional candidates hold a 49%-44% edge over the Democrats. Two months ago, respondents favored Democrats over Republicans, 50%-42%.
But it’s not too late for Obamacare supporters to turn things around. Monday saw a major spike in last-minute enrollments, and, as analysts are quick to note, the law has yet to truly begin. The real tests will come in 2014, when consumers begin to receive coverage and see what it is they actually purchased.