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Though the exemption is part of federal law under the Affordable Care Act, states that run their own exchanges could be responsible for interpreting the law and deciding what is an acceptable hardship, said Matthew Lawrence, a fellow at the Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation.

The federal government will make determinations for states that participate in the federal exchange and for many states that have deferred that authority to the government the first year of the program. But in the future, those states with their own exchanges who don’t support the law could use the exemption to provide a lot of leeway.

“When you have a very vague term like this exemption 14, the devil could be in the details on how it is implemented,” Mr. Lawrence said. “But that is one place where a different administration or state with a more- or less-favorable view might take a different approach to implementing it.”

Mr. Lawrence also said there’s a precedent from Massachusetts, which enacted a universal health reform in the last decade. Very few people claimed a similarly loosely-worded exemption.

While the state approved a large percentage of those who applied for a hardship exemption, few went through the trouble of applying, Mr. Lawrence said.

But that was in Massachusetts, where most people approved of those health reforms. Nationally, where Obamacare is less popular, more people might apply for exemptions in an effort to avoid compliance, he said.

Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman from HHS, said the exemptions are meant to benefit a limited number of people who experience real hardships that make it difficult to get insurance.

“The Affordable Care Act requires people who can afford insurance to buy it, so that their medical bills are not passed onto the rest of us, which drives up health care costs for everyone,” she said. “This form, which was published last December, allows a limited number of individuals who are facing hardship to apply for an exception.”