The Obama administration said Wednesday that it doesn't know how many people will take advantage of the latest extension to buy insurance on the health care exchanges, in a move that signals just how determined President Obama is to make his law's economics work.
The extension, which the administration leaked Tuesday and officially announced Wednesday, says those who tried to enroll before the March 31 deadline can have more time to finish their applications on the federally run exchanges.
Officials, though, said they won't be checking to see whether people actually tried to enroll, which means anyone can use the extension. The officials also left the cutoff date open-ended, meaning it's not clear when the final deadline will be.
"What the hell — is this, a joke?" House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Wednesday.
Critics complained bitterly about Mr. Obama's latest decision to alter parts of the law that his own party pushed through Congress.
The enrollment deadline had been extended from Feb. 15 to March 31. Now, the deadline is unclear.
It could "take a few days, it could take a week or so" to help those in line complete the process, said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who likened the waiting consumers to voters who are still in line at the time polls are supposed to close.
She said people tend to follow the rules, so she expects those who claim the extension to have honestly made an effort to sign up earlier.
"I think it's also important to recognize that this is an official federal application for marketplace coverage," Ms. Bataille said. "Most people are truthful when applying for those benefits."
The administration took similar steps late last year to extend deadlines to help those rushing to have coverage by Jan. 1.
Several states that run their own health care exchanges have announced similar initiatives.
The Silver State Exchange in Nevada last week approved a 60-day special enrollment period for people who run into technical problems while using the insurance portals before Monday, exchange spokesman C.J. Bawden said.
Oregon announced Wednesday that it would give residents an extra month to sign up for coverage on the state-run exchange, according to news reports. Oregon's exchange has been plagued with problems, including a website that still isn't running properly six months into the enrollment period.
Congressional Republicans swiftly condemned the federal extension as yet another attempt to smooth over the wobbly rollout of Mr. Obama's signature initiative.
Democrats argued that President George W. Bush made a similar move when he rolled out his Medicare prescription drug program.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Republicans would have criticized the administration if it did not grant more time to enrollees who encounter technical hiccups.
He also offered a novel reason for the allowance: Some people do not use computers.
"We have a lot of people just like this," said Mr. Reid, recounting the story of a Connecticut woman who needed in-person help. "No, it's through no fault of the Internet, because people are not educated to how to use the Internet."
Republicans said they are particularly upset because Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told Congress this month that she lacked the authority to extend the long-standing cutoff date of March 31 to qualify for government-subsidized insurance this year.
Administration officials repeatedly said the deadline to enroll for private coverage on HealthCare.gov — the portal that serves three dozen states — is still Monday and that they are gearing up for high demand.
The website received 1.2 million visits and the federal call center got 390,000 calls Tuesday, and the portal can handle 100,000 users at the same time, said Kurt DelBene, a senior HHS adviser tapped this year to oversee HealthCare.gov and replace management consultant Jeff Zients, who oversaw last year's "tech surge" to correct the website's glitches.
But the administration's decision to let people self-attest that they tried to sign up by the deadline raises questions about how the federal government will know whether consumers are telling the truth.
It follows an exemption the administration added that lets Americans claim "hardship" and duck the individual mandate requiring them to have insurance coverage.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the administration has provided so much leeway that the individual mandate — a linchpin of the law that requires most Americans to hold insurance — has "basically become the legal equivalent of Swiss cheese."
As it stood, the health care law allowed the administration to make exceptions for people who wanted to sign up or alter their coverage status on the federal exchange — outside of the normal open-enrollment period — because of technical errors or a major life event, such as the birth of a child, a divorce or the loss of employer-based insurance.
Without such an exception, a person who does not seek coverage by Monday would have to wait until enrollment opens again in mid-November to seek a plan on the Obamacare marketplace and potential government subsidies to defray the cost of premiums.
Timothy Jost, a health care policy analyst at Washington and Lee University School of Law, said the administration's approach should not surprise anyone because it signaled it would not shut out people who make an effort to enroll by the deadline.
"They really could have done a better job explaining what the rules are," he said, but "I don't think they're breaking or bending any rules."
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