Today is the day when nearly everyone in the U.S. must be signed up for a health insurance plan, or risk being fined by the government.
The lead up to the March 31 deadline for open enrollment was rife with confusion over the Affordable Care Act — known informally as “Obamacare” — and how it would apply to U.S. citizens, while signing up for health care plans was slowed by a slew of technical problems with the federal and state versions of websites built to serve as marketplaces for the plans.
Hawaii’s own Health Connector online exchange was not ready in time for the beginning of the enrollment period, and former executive director Coral Andrews resigned in early December after a slew of criticism.
As problems across the country were encountered, the deadline to enroll was pushed back on several occasions. Originally, the deadline was Dec. 15, 2013, for coverage to begin Jan. 1.
Those problems have since largely been fixed. Between Oct. 1, 2013, and March 9, the Connector reported 22,639 applications completed in its Individual Marketplace, and 5,394 enrollments.
Those who have not yet enrolled may face fines, experts say, but for the majority of Americans, that won’t be a concern. Before the health care law passed in 2010, more than 8 in 10 residents already had coverage, usually through workplace coverage or through the government’s Medicare or Medicaid programs. Some also had private policies that meet the law’s requirements.
But for those who don’t already have insurance, Hawaii Health Connector spokesman Bobby Lambrix said earlier this month that while the deadline is today, people still have a few hours to select a plan online.
“The first thing for people to realize when they open up the paper on the 31st is that they can still complete an application,” he said. “You can still get it in that day.”
Additionally, he said, those who did wait until the last minute shouldn’t have to worry about being fined, because their plans won’t kick in until after the deadline.
“The individual mandate is for three consecutive months without coverage. So, for someone who has submitted an application but didn’t select a plan until the end of March, and their coverage isn’t effective until May, that still wouldn’t be three months, so they would be OK,” Lambrix said.
Once the deadline passes, however, the next open enrollment period won’t begin until Nov. 15 for coverage in 2015, Lambrix warned.
That’s assuming the government doesn’t decide to push the deadline back again, as it has done in the past. But this time, Lambrix says it looks like the deadline is firm.
“I’m watching what (White House Press Secretary) Jay Carney says, and the federal government. They’re certainly holding to that line,” he said 11 days before the deadline. “They said this was the deadline, and I see no indication otherwise.”
As for those who fail to select a plan before the deadline, there remain many exceptions before fines may kick in. People who qualify for Medicaid can sign up any time with no deadline. Also, those who are insured now but lose their coverage by getting laid off from their jobs, for example, can use the Connector exchange to find a new policy outside of the open enrollment constraints. People can also sign up for new plans in special situations such as having a baby or moving to another state.
“Medicaid services, Quest, CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), these sorts of things have a continuous rolling enrollment, so anyone who thinks they’re eligible can apply,” Lambrix said.
Purchasing a new insurance plan outside the state’s marketplace would also qualify someone to benefit from consumer protections in the law. People who do that wouldn’t normally be eligible for premium subsidies, but the Obama administration has said exceptions will be made for people whose attempts to buy marketplace insurance on time were stymied by continuing problems with some enrollment websites.
Those who aren’t covered in 2014 risk being tapped to pay a $95 fine, or 1 percent of their income, whichever number is higher. And that penalty is slated to increase in later years.
Next year, the Internal Revenue Service will ask taxpayers filing their forms for proof of insurance coverage. Insurance companies are required to provide that documentation to their customers. If you owe a penalty for being uninsured, the IRS can withhold it from your refund.
The agency can’t put people in jail or garnish wages to get the money, but it can withhold the penalty from a future year’s tax refund.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.