WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - President Obama has extended the health care exchange deadline for those who start the process before March 31, Health and Human Services officials say.
"Open enrollment ends March 31," said Julie Bataille, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman. "We are experiencing a surge in demand and are making sure that we will be ready to help consumers who may be in line by the deadline to complete enrollment—either online or over the phone."
When the website, HealthCare.gov, was overwhelmed by people trying to enroll in late December to gain health coverage by Jan. 1, the administration enacted a similar stretch of the deadline for those who tried to enroll but did not make the deadline.
This time, officials said they would loosen the deadline for those with "complex or extenuating" circumstances that keep them from fully enrolling by March 31, the last day of open enrollment, and the last day to buy health insurance to avoid paying a fine with 2014 taxes.
Officials expect a high volume of last-minute enrollees, and while they say the website can handle the numbers, they don't want to penalize those who need extra help. Some households will need to file paper forms and complete paperwork over the phone, officials said.
Officials recommend setting aside some time for enrollment to gather family information, investigate whether a doctor is within a plan's network, and ensuring that those new to the insurance world understand basic terms like "deductible" and "premium," which are explained at www.HealthCare.gov.
As the deadline looms closer, HHS has sent out emails to everyone who has begun the process encouraging them to complete their forms. To complete enrollment, people must also send their first month's premium payment to the insurer. In January, the administration encouraged insurers to backdate enrollment to when people completed their applications.
So far, at least 5.2 million people have signed up for private plans through the exchanges, according to the government's figures as of March 1. This week, Washington state announced that 12,000 people had enrolled in plans in one week — four times their average enrollment. New York state saw enrollment increase by almost 16,000 people in one week. And California, with more than one million people enrolled, has already reached its enrollment goals.
"The expected surge in last-minute enrollments has begun," said Richard Onizuka, CEO for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, in a release today. "We're urging residents who are still seeking coverage to complete their application as soon as possible to avoid missing this first open enrollment period."
The president has spent the last week pushing the exchanges with a "March Madness" campaign, while Mrs. Obama has reached out to families with messages about the importance of coverage. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been traveling to the states with the most uninsured — Florida, Texas and California — to try to boost turnout. Some states have as many as 150 event planned for the final week of enrollment.