It’s the last week to sign up for health plans under the Affordable Care Act—the deadline is Monday, March 31. As people continue to wade through the confusion surrounding the law, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced it will offer some wiggle room on the deadline.
As of March 1, about 180,000 people in Ohio had gotten new health coverage either from the federal Marketplace or Medicaid—a trickle, not a flood. An estimated 1.5 million Ohio residents lack health insurance, and the law requires all uninsured people to sign up either through the federal Marketplace at healthcare.gov or through the state’s Medicaid program, which has recently expanded to include anyone making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
With the deadline looming, procrastinators are stepping up—and confessing their confusion about the law.
“Bad information spreads really fast, and I’m hearing some pretty wild stories” says Michelle Nelson at the Community Action Partnership in Dayton. She says people are filing in and out of their lobby all day, every day, to sign up, and many have no idea they could qualify for free or subsidized care, or that they could owe steep fines if they don’t enroll.
“I hear a lot of, ‘well, that’s really too complicated, I’m just gonna opt out, I’m gonna pay the 95 dollar fine.’ It’s not a choice,” Nelson says.
That’s because $95 is the minimum fine, and it goes up from there based on income to hundreds or even thousands per year, and the whole point is to discourage people from thinking they can “opt out.” The deadline is also important to the law's success; limited open enrollment periods mean people can't wait until they are sick to sign up for healthcare, and clarifies the exact conditions of the penalties. Anyone without health insurance for more than three months out of a given year can be fined, excepting some special circumstances.
Now Health and Human Services says they’ll offer extensions for people who start the application process before March 31, but can’t complete it in time because of technical problems, or because they have complicated applications that have experienced glitches.
“Just like election day, if you are line when the polls close, you get to vote,” says Julie Bataille, director of the Office of Communications for HHS. But as for how much longer after March 31 people might be getting enrolled, she says: ”It’s difficult for us to specify how long a line we may have.”
The Community Action Partnership of the Greater Dayton Area, which has a volunteer-run program to help people enroll, has already extended its appointment periods for ACA enrollment through April 15 to assist people who are still completing applications. Healthcare navigators are also available through Helping Hands Community Center in Dayton.
On Monday and Tuesday alone, HHS says the Marketplace call center answered a half a million calls. They report the sites are working better than previously, with millions of visits a day.
Republican opponents of the law have criticized HHS for what has been a rocky rollout.