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‘Special enrollment period’ triggers debate

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration’s decision to allow marketplace health insurance enrollments beyond March 31 could exacerbate a credibility gap with insurers and lawmakers who have chafed at the troubled implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

After stating that the deadline would not be extended, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services Wednesday outlined a broad “special enrollment period,” which gives people an unspecified amount of extra time to finalize insurance purchases that were initiated before March 31 on, the federal insurance marketplace that serves 36 states.

“We’re not going to shut the door on those people who want coverage and have come in and tried to get it,” said Julie Bataille, communications director at the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Bataille would not say, however, whether the department would try to verify claims by those seeking extensions that they had tried previously to get coverage.

“Most people are truthful when applying for those benefits,” she said.

While officials insist the March 31 enrollment deadline remains in effect, consumers nationwide will now have wiggle room to obtain coverage after that date without the threat of penalties under the law’s “individual mandate.”

The provision requires most Americans to have health insurance for 2014 or pay fines when they file their tax returns in 2015.

The “special enrollment period” mirrors the extended period that the administration approved in December, when millions of people waited to enroll in coverage that began Jan. 1. It’s the latest in a series of White House changes to the terms and implementation timetable of the health care law.

Affordable Care Act supporters have welcomed the administration’s adjustments to the law as common-sense fixes that typically accompany the rollout of complex legislation.

In Texas, which has 6.4 million uninsured residents, Ted Shaw, president of the Texas Hospital Association, said enrollment should be extended from one to three months because of the early technical problems during the rollout of the website.

“The administration’s decision to extend the enrollment period is good not only for those who have attempted to enroll, but should also apply for those who have yet to begin the enrollment process,” Shaw said.

Ron Pollack, president of Families USA, a liberal patient-advocacy group, was also heartened by the extension.

“There is absolutely no downside to this limited extension,” Pollack said. “And there are plenty of upsides because the purpose of the Affordable Care Act is to get health coverage for as many people who don’t have it, and this extension will further that objective.”

But conservative legal critics and Republicans have derided the executive branch tweaks as an unconstitutional and congressionally unauthorized rewriting of the law.