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Under fire, White House to push back Obamacare penalties

Cutoff moved from Feb. 15 to March 31

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With Obamacare criticism mounting and a faulty website still frustrating consumers, the White House confirmed Thursday it will delay the date by which Americans must buy health insurance or face fines.

The change — described by Obama administration officials as an "alignment," not a retreat on the health care reform law and its controversial individual mandate provision — will have the practical effect of giving the uninsured another six weeks to get coverage, moving the cut-off day from Feb. 15 to March 31.

Obamacare's "open enrollment period," which began Oct. 1 in conjunction with the launch of the troubled healthcare.gov website, is supposed to last six months, ending March 31.

But health care analysts and some in the administration have pointed out that, in order to meet the March 31 end date, an application for insurance would have needed to be made by Feb. 15 to ensure it goes into effect on time.

Calls for change from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have piled up in recent days as lawmakers point out that it's simply unfair to punish Americans for not having insurance if they can't use the website to buy it.

There's also the issue that, as currently constructed, Obamacare's highly touted "six-month" enrollment period actually would last just 4 months.

Even though the White House has had years to plan for its health care reform rollout, it is waiting until the last minute to address the looming problem.

"The deadline for signing up for insurance was and is March 31 the administration has been working on basically aligning the deadlines for enrollment enforcement, Feb. 15 and March 31," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday.

"If there is no course correction, individuals who have bought insurance on the marketplaces by March 31 could nevertheless be penalized for not having their insurance by March. We are working to issue guidance that would make sure that doesn't happen. So in other words, if you have insurance by March 31 because you've purchased it but it hasn't kicked in, you should not be penalized," Mr. Carney said.

Mr. Carney also pushed back on reports that the adjustment constitutes a delay of the individual mandate, a key part of Obamacare that's been upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court but remains the target of intense criticism from opponents of the law, led by congressional Republicans.

"The individual mandate timing has not changed," he said, adding that the Department of Health and Human Services will soon issue "guidance" on the details of the changes.

No action by Congress is necessary, according to Mr. Carney.

While the adjustment will have little, if any, impact on the law itself, health care analysts say it's a necessary step to avoid the negative publicity that would stem from Americans being fined for not having a product they're unable to buy online.

"I don't think it has a material impact enrollment, so I don't think it has a big effect on health plans. Fundamentally, what they're trying to avoid is being having people be compliant with the law but being fined, generating more anger and bad press. That's the important piece," said Caroline Pearson, vice president at Avalere Health, a Washington-based advisory firm.

With changes forthcoming, questions now will turn to whether the White House also will push back the March 31 date, with critics arguing such a move is necessary if website problems continue.

Mr. Carney stressed again Thursday that the administration is working "24/7" to fix the site and has brought in teams of outside experts to assist with repairing it.

But if problems continue, or if many uninsured Americans simply put off buying insurance because of website horror stories or other factors, the date could end up being flexible, Ms. Pearson and other analysts say.

"It's definitely not out of the question. There will be no decision on that early, but if enrollment is not where they want it to be as we approach the end of open enrollment, it's possible it could be extended," she said.

As for where enrollment stands right now, Mr. Carney refused to offer an exact figure Thursday, the second straight day of vigorous press demands for such a figure.

Officials have said the number is somewhere in the thousands, but the White House, when it isn't blaming the website's poor performance at least partially on huge demand, has not given a more detailed description of the success of Obamacare enrollment.

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