WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Wednesday night that it will give Americans who buy health insurance through new online marketplaces an extra six weeks to obtain coverage before they risk a penalty.
The announcement means that those who buy coverage through the exchange will have until March 31 to sign up for a plan, according to an official with the Department of Health and Human Services.
Obama administration officials said the new deadline is unrelated to the many technical problems that the marketplace’s website, HealthCare.gov, has had in its first three weeks of operation. Instead, they said, the move is designed to clear up confusion about when people would face a penalty under the 2010 health care law.
Under the law, most Americans are required to have insurance by Jan. 1, although the open-enrollment period for the federal exchange and state ones runs through the end of March. The fines begin after a three-month grace period. The question has been whether people must be covered by March 31 or merely have signed up by then – because health policies typically don’t start right away.
The administration made clear Wednesday night that people who buy coverage at any point during the open-enrollment period will not pay a penalty.
It is the latest sign that the Affordable Care Act remains a moving target, even after the federal insurance marketplace has faced myriad problems that have frustrated many people trying to sign up for coverage.
Contractors and others have begun assigning blame for the website troubles, and the fault-finding will get its most extensive public airing today, when four of the contractors involved in the project will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In the written testimony submitted to the panel in advance, CGI Federal, the main contractor on the project, takes partial blame for the site’s shortcomings. But it also notes that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, an agency within HHS, was the “ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance” of the site. And it blames a piece created by another contractor, Quality Software Services, or QSSI, for creating the initial bottleneck.
The hearing is the first of many planned by Republicans, who are expected not only to question the contractors but also to examine the administration’s management of the project. Wednesday, top Obama advisers met with insurance executives to discuss system repairs.
There have been inconsistencies about how and when the decision was made to scrap a key feature of the website, with QSSI telling congressional investigators that it did not know about the major change until the site’s launch. But in the written testimony the company plans to deliver today, it says that it found out shortly before the rollout date.
Republicans have been eager to learn more about how and when the decision was made to end that feature. The feature would have allowed people to browse plans and rates before signing up for an account. Technology experts have said the last-minute decision to stop it put too much pressure on a different tool that was set up to handle a small number of simultaneous users, crashing the site.
People familiar with the project give conflicting accounts of the reason for the move. The decision was made at a two-day meeting in late September to which CMS invited all its major contractors. According to one person familiar with the project, CGI gave a presentation that convinced CMS officials that the shopping feature was not ready.
Another person close to the project had a slightly different account, saying that it believed that the feature was, in fact, ready.
Republican lawmakers have alleged that the Obama administration made the change to hide the cost of insurance plans from consumers. “Evidence is mounting that political considerations motivated the decision,” said a letter sent to two administration officials Tuesday from members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.