- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2015

First it was man-made website glitches, and now it’s Mother Nature’s wrath that have given Obamacare supporters the excuse to extend application deadlines in the second open enrollment for the health exchanges.

Two northeastern states buried under winter’s assault pushed the Feb. 15 deadline back to Feb. 23, while officials in the District of Columbia on Tuesday delayed a special enrollment session by 24 hours after a snowstorm closed federal and city offices.

Massachusetts, which has seen near-record snowfall this season, has closed state offices four times, resulting in reduced staffing at the state’s Obamacare exchange and long wait times at its call centers, even as potential enrollees put their lives on hold to dig themselves out and deal with kids home from school.

“It’s all very time-consuming, and we thought it would be helpful to give people extra time to complete an application and get help if they need it,” Massachusetts Health Connector spokesman Jason Lefferts said.

HealthSource Rhode Island announced a similar extension for customers who were prevented from signing up because of snow-related closures Sunday at enrollment centers in Providence and Warwick, the state’s largest cities.

It’s not unprecedented for government agencies to grant deadline relief to Americans reeling from acts of God.

SEE ALSO: White House touts 11.4 million Obamacare signups-and-counting after deadline

The Federal Communications Commission sometimes pushes back its filing deadlines because of adverse weather, and the IRS website lists dozens of instance of disaster tax relief over the past four years.

Last year, the revenue agency told Washington state residents affected by late-March mudslides they could bypass the April 15 tax deadline and pay up by Oct. 15.

But it’s snow that’s causing havoc for health care, specifically in the Northeast.

Unlike the federal exchange, which required HealthCare.gov customers in 37 states to have been “in line” as of Sunday’s deadline, officials in Massachusetts and Rhode Island said their customers may start a new application before the Feb. 23 deadline.

In District, officials asked last-minute enrollees looking for in-person help on Tuesday to wait until Wednesday, when the worst of the snowstorm was expected to be over.

Two city churches that serve as enrollment centers were shuttered because of weather Sunday — a bitterly cold and windy day in the capital.

SEE ALSO: HHS, feds push Obamacare in churches: ‘The Body is a Temple and It Must Be Insured’

Weather-induced extensions are the latest ripple in a pattern of sliding deadlines under Obamacare.

The federal HealthCare.gov website and several state-run portals crashed upon their launch in fall 2013, forcing officials to launch fix-it campaigns and push back deadlines for start-of-year coverage before the law required most Americans to hold health insurance in January 2014.

When the administration gave struggling customers an extra two weeks to sign up last spring, House Speaker John A. Boehner famously asked, “What the hell is this, a joke?”

The administration is taking a harder line in the law’s second go-around, although it said Monday that people who experienced last-minute hurdles in signing up have until Feb. 22 to finish their applications.

Congressional Democrats and advocacy groups want the administration to establish a special enrollment period for people who owe a penalty on 2014 tax returns due in April for lacking health insurance last year, yet did not realize it before last weekend’s Obamacare deadline.

The administration hasn’t said whether it will extend the relief to these HealthCare.gov customers, although Washington State said its penalty-payers have until April 17 to enroll in the state-run exchange.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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