- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 8, 2014

States running their own health care exchanges say tens of thousands of enrollees are taking advantage of deadline grace periods to sign up for health plans — boosting the White House’s enrollment tally while underscoring the glitches that made the extensions necessary.

New York State of Health said that as of Monday, more than 43,000 state residents had enrolled after March 31 deadline, though they’d started their applications before the deadline.

In the District of Columbia, the city-run exchange predicts that 500 people will take advantage of a two-week extension.

“That’s success,” said Mila Kofman, executive director of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority. “That’s 500 people who wouldn’t have been covered otherwise.”

This year marks the first time almost all Americans are required to hold health coverage if they can afford it. The individual mandate took effect Jan. 1 and a tax penalty will be applied to anyone who goes without insurance for more than three months.

After some confusion about when someone would need to seek coverage to avoid the penalty, the administration clarified that people who attempt to enroll by the formal March 31 deadline would not be penalized — including people in line by that date, who may not finish up until mid-April.

The extensions give states a chance to make up ground on the back end, after stumbles that left many of their exchanges in worse shape than the federal exchange, which suffered major computer failures in October.

Maryland says 16,5000 people have taken advantage of the state’s extended deadline of April 18.

And in Kentucky, which is letting residents who had problems signing up by March 31 apply by Friday and pick a plan by April 15, officials said “thousands” are enrolling.

Other states offered more generous extensions. Oregonians have until April 30 to finish up, after Cover Oregon’s faulty website forced staff to process applications by hand, while Nevada’s health exchange authorized a two-month special enrollment period for people who encountered technical problems.

The tide of last-minute enrollees should be a boon for the Obama administration in the short term, adding to the 7.1 million Americans who selected plans by the end of last month.

This week, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index said the U.S. uninsured rate has dropped to 15.6 percent in the first quarter of 2014, a 1.5-point drop from the previous quarter and its lowest point since late 2008.

Helping with this month’s push is the looming April 15 deadline for filing federal taxes. Tax preparation companies said they’re reminding customers of what’s available.

Brian Haile, senior vice president for health care policy at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, said they are still seeing customers who are “completely unaware of their options,” while others are confused by various “myths” that surround the individual mandate penalty.

Tax filers think they will pay a $95 penalty next spring for failing to gain health insurance in 2014, but many will have to pay much more, because the government will extract the greater of $95 or 1 percent of household income above the filing threshold. Others think they are accruing penalties right now, yet some of them have until the middle of this month to get insured, he said.

And some do not realize they will only be penalized for the months they go uninsured.

“That’s a concept that’s unfortunately as misunderstood as the 95-dollar myth,” Mr. Haile said.

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