- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The White House insists it is sticking by the March 31 deadline for enrolling in Obamacare, but states are forging plans to try to find extra wiggle-room that could let Americans complete their sign-ups months after the “drop-dead” date passes.

Maryland’s health exchange this week announced a plan to let consumers who begin the process but fail to sign up by the end of March have extra time to complete their enrollment. Nevada’s exchange said Thursday it will consider a similar 60-day grace period.

And in Washington state, exchange spokeswoman Bethany Frey said customers prevented from enrolling by March 31 because of a system error will have their applications reviewed “on a case-by-case basis.”

The state efforts have not been blessed by the Obama administration, which flatly rejected the additional time.

“The deadline is March 31,” a Health and Human Services Department spokeswoman said.

But Matthew Lawrence, a fellow at Harvard Law School, said it’s no surprise the administration is talking tough now — though it ultimately might find a plausible legal basis to help people bypass the March 31 deadline.

“I expect the administration to wait before announcing any retroactive ‘fix’ for those who tried and failed for fear that an announcement before the deadline could give people a license to procrastinate,” he said.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said the administration is confident it’ll have enough sign-ups by the end of the month, including enough young, healthy people, to make the economics of Obamacare work.

Healthier adults are needed to create a balanced risk pool and keep premiums in check when insurers take stock of the first round of enrollment and set prices for the coming year.

“We’re confident that come April 1, you will see a demographic mix that is equal to the objective, which is to ensure that actuarially the marketplaces function effectively,” Mr. Carney said.

Once final enrollment numbers are known, the next question will be what insurers do with premiums headed into 2015.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently told Congress she thinks premiums will rise in the coming year, but at a slower rate than usual because of the law.

Some industry professionals disagreed with Mrs. Sebelius assessment in news reports, saying premiums could spike multifold in some areas because of the troubled rollout.

Dan Mendelson, CEO of the Avalere health care consultancy in Washington, said a spike in premiums on the Obamacare marketplace is feasible, although likely a “not massive” one, and that the exchanges should remain competitive.

He said the March 31 deadline is in place in part to give companies a chance to take stock of where things are.

“You have to allow plans to reset, think about premiums and have a structured process,” he said.

Any tangible spike this year would damage Democratic candidates who supported the law and are up for re-election in November, as Republicans have made it clear they will wield Obamacare’s troubles as a truncheon during the mid-term contests.

The law’s stumbles are even causing intraparty problems in Maryland, where Democratic candidates to succeed Gov. Martin O’Malley are sparring over the state’s glitchy exchange website and the governor is trying to stem any bleeding over the coming days.

On Tuesday, it announced a stopgap measure to help — through telephone guidance — anyone who tried to sign up by March 31, but couldn’t complete their application by that date.

Kentucky’s exchange will allow people to apply for coverage by March 31 and pick a plan by April 15, exchange spokeswoman Gwenda Bond said.

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