The Obama administration said Friday that customers on the Obamacare health insurance exchange will have eight more days to sign up for health coverage this December and still be covered by Jan. 1.
Customers can shop and select a plan on an exchange up through Dec. 23, replacing a Dec. 15 deadline, and make their first premium payment by Dec. 31 to be insured at the start of the new year, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said the agency realizes that early use of the law's federal online portal, HealthCare.gov, has been frustrating and it wants to give consumers "as much time as possible" to get covered.
She said insurers have been notified of the adjustment.
"They are aware of the day change and this was done in consultation with them," Ms. Bataille said on a conference call, but declined to say whether the delay is mandatory until policy documents are published.
The announcement is only the latest tweak in the Affordable Care Act's tortured chronology, as bitter political divisions morphed this fall into frustration over rampant web problems with the law's federal market place and recriminations over millions of cancelled health policies that do not meet the law's coverage requirements.
The website's chief repairman, Jeffrey Zients, said HealthCare.gov is constantly improving and will be able to handle 50,000 users at the same time — the capacity its designers had intended — by the end of the month. If problems occur during peak hours, a "customer-friendly queuing system" will notify customers by email when it is best to retry their application.
CMS officials said the website's application function would be down from 9 p.m. Saturday to 9 a.m. Sunday for maintenance.
However, the agency announced a pilot program for three states that is supposed to make it easier for consumers to enroll.
Insurers in Texas, Florida and Ohio are charged with providing feedback to the agency about the "direct enrollment" program, a feature that allows consumers to compare plans through the insurer before they are briefly re-routed to the HealthCare.gov site to determine their eligibility for exchange plans or possible government subsidies.
The feature was always available, but it's been hampered by the federal website's poor performance. Feedback from the program will "feed into our real-time work to make improvements for both consumers and issuers," Ms. Bataille said Friday in a blog post.
But CMS officials also said the website's application function would be down from 9 p.m. Saturday to 9 a.m. Sunday for maintenance.
Despite improvements to the portal, Republican critics of the law are crying foul over changes to the law's timeline.
The law's first-ever enrollment period began Oct. 1 and lasts until March 31, but the Obama administration late Thursday said it was pushing back the start of next year's Obamacare sign-up period from Oct. 15 to Nov. 15.
Republicans protested the move, because customers will not see their new insurance rates until after the November 2014 midterm elections.
"That means that if premiums go through the roof in the first year of Obamacare, no one will know about it until after the election," Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, said. "This is clearly a cynical political move by the Obama administration to use extra-regulatory, by-any-means-necessary tools to keep this program afloat and hide key information from voters."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the time frame was delayed to give insurers more time to assess the make-up of customers and set future premiums.
"This gives them more time to assess the pool of people who are getting insurance through the marketplaces and make decisions about what rates will look like in the coming year," he said at Friday's daily press briefing.
Earlier this year, the GOP criticized the White House for its decision in July to delay enforcement of the employer mandate, which requires larger firms to provide health coverage for full-time employees or pay fines, from 2014 to 2015, or after the mid-term elections.
Republicans also derided the White House for announcing its decision in a blog post shortly before the July 4 holiday.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said the new delay was made for "purely political reasons."
"If Obamacare is so great, why are Democrats so scared of voters knowing its consequences?" he said.
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