Congressional Republicans lined up Wednesday to cry foul over the Obama administration's decision to let people sign up for health plans on the Obamacare marketplace even if they do not finish the process by Monday's deadline.
They cited Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' recent testimony to Congress that she lacked the authority to extend the longstanding cut-off date of March 31 to qualify for coverage this year.
Others said the move is no surprise, because it mirrors efforts the administration took in late December to make sure people had coverage in time for the new year.
Even so, Republicans said they are exasperated by yet another delay to President Obama's signature domestic achievement.
Rep. Kevin Brady, Texas Republican and chairman of a key House subcommittee overseeing health issues, said the secretary "assured me that there would be no delays for the March 31st signup deadline, and yet they announced last night that they are extending the deadline till mid-April. "
"This is the 36th delay," he added. "After dozens of White House delays and unilateral changes, the Affordable Care Act continues to do more harm than good for the American people."
Some Democrats backed the administration's decision.
"While Republicans are busy throwing every obstacle they can in front of Americans enrolling in more affordable and comprehensive health insurance, the administration is right to help as many people and families as possible to get covered," said Rep. Sander Levin, Michigan Democrat and ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Administration officials reiterated that open enrollment for the individual health exchanges technically ends on Monday.
However, "we are experiencing a surge in demand and are making sure that we will be ready to help consumers who may be in line by the deadline to complete enrollment — either online or over the phone," said Aaron Albright, spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The Washington Post, which first reported the new rules late Tuesday, said the administration will rely on the honor system when people request additional time to sign up.
As it stood, the law allowed the administration to make exceptions for people who wanted to enroll or alter their coverage status because of a major life event, such as the birth of a baby, a divorce or the loss of employer-based insurance.
Administration officials said their systems "will allow individuals with special circumstances and complex cases to receive help completing the enrollment process outside of open enrollment."
Timothy Jost, a health policy expert at Washington and Lee University School of Law who follows Mr. Obama's overhaul closely, said the administration had signaled in recent months that they would work with people who had trouble finishing up by the deadline. The concept is akin to people who line up at the polls before they close, but still get to vote after the appointed hour.
"They really could have done a better job explaining what the rules are," Mr. Jost said, but added, "I don't think they're breaking or bending any rules."
He also did not think insurers would cry foul over the allowance.
"In general, they want more people in the risk pool than fewer," he said, noting they would object to an indefinite extension.
Several states that run their own health exchanges announced initiatives in recent days to help people who start their enrollments before Monday but run into technical issues on the insurance portals.
Last week, the Silver State Exchange in Nevada approved a 60-day special enrollment period for people who ran into technical problems before March 31, exchange spokesman C.J. Bawden said.
On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney hinted at the federal delay during his regular press briefing.
"March 31st is the deadline, as was the case for the December deadline," he said. "We're going to want to make sure that people who are already in line can finish their enrollment. But for how that process works, I would point you to what happened in December and how that played out."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.