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Deadline? What Deadline? The Obamacare Sign-up Dates Keep Moving

Confusion reigns as state and federal officials allow people to find and pay for new health insurance plans.

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(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

You aren’t alone if you’re confused about the deadline to sign up for coverage on the health insurance marketplaces. The deadline is — and has been — in flux.

When the process began in October, consumers using HealthCare.gov, the federal marketplace for 36 states, had until Dec. 15 to pick a plan if they wanted coverage that begins Jan. 1. But because of the well-publicized glitches with the website, federal officials last month extended that deadline until Dec. 23.

Then, last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sought to delay another key deadline, the date by which consumers have to pay their first month’s premium. As it stood, payments had to be received before coverage began (so, by Dec. 31), but HHS asked insurers to be flexible.

On Wednesday, health insurance companies obliged, extending the payment deadline to Jan. 10 instead of Jan. 1.

So where does this leave folks? It’s still not totally clear.

HHS hinted last week that the enrollment deadline was still not set in stone. “We will consider moving this deadline to a later date should exceptional circumstances pose barriers to consumers enrolling on or before December 23.” The department’s fact sheet did not define “exceptional circumstances.”

The confusion only builds. The federal government sets enrollment deadlines for the 36 states for which it handles sign-ups; the 14 state-based insurance marketplaces set their own deadlines. Read these couple paragraphs from a story by Jeffrey Young at The Huffington Post:

The final date to choose a health plan that will be in place on Jan. 1 is Dec. 23 in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Marylanders and Oregonians have until Dec. 27, although Oregon residents had only until Dec. 4 to file paper applications with the state exchange because online enrollment remains unavailable.

The deadline to pay January premiums is now Jan. 10 in the 36 states served by the federal exchanges and in Colorado and New York. Users of the exchanges in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Nevada have to pay by Dec. 23. The due date is Jan. 1 for Kentuckians, Jan. 6 for Rhode Islanders, Jan. 7 for Vermonters and Jan. 15 for Marylanders. In the District of Columbia, Aetna customers have until Jan. 8, while CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and Kaiser Permanente enrollees can pay up until Jan. 15. Hawaii and Oregon are still determining their respective payment deadlines.

Here’s an excerpt from Wednesday’s Seattle Times about Washington’s deadlines:

Washington residents who have started but not finished their applications for insurance through the state's new health care exchange are getting a deadline reprieve, state officials announced Wednesday.

Anyone who begins an application before the previous deadline of Dec. 23, will get as much help as they need to finish and won't face a real deadline until Jan. 15, said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

"The most important thing I want people to do is to take the action to get that application started. We can work with them at that point," Marchand said Wednesday.

All of those dates could still change, so if you are in need of coverage, it's best to ask questions early and often.

"There is massive confusion around deadlines," Mike Perry, co-founder of research firm PerryUndem, recently told The Washington Post. He has traveled the country doing focus groups with uninsured Americans this past month. "March comes up. January is prominent. But nobody seems to know the deadlines," Perry said.

If you don’t need coverage that begins Jan. 1, you’re in luck. The 2014 open enrollment period for the health insurance marketplaces runs through March 31, although your coverage generally won’t begin until the month after you sign up. (Most consumers who go without insurance in 2014 will have to pay a penalty.)

In the next few days, as enrollment surges ahead of Monday’s “deadline,” we'll begin to understand the scope of the problem. Covered California on Wednesday said that 15,000 people a day are signing up for coverage; in New York, the figure is 4,500.

I’ve heard from a number of consumers this week saying that they had not yet received invoices from their insurance companies, and so they have been unable to pay their first month’s premiums. Along the same lines, at a forum for health journalists last week, an official from the Community Service Society of New York said that she was told that three prominent insurance companies were only beginning to send out invoices to their enrollees.

As I reported last week, some insurers reported that only 5 percent to 15 percent of enrollees had paid their first month’s premium.

If you’re rushing to make a last-minute choice, check out WNYC’s Procrastinator’s Guide to Getting Insured. I am talking about various aspects of buying insurance each morning this week on WNYC. Also, see the tips offered by California consumer group Health Access.

And please let me know what your experience is like.

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from Ornstein’s “Healthy buzz” blog. Have you tried signing up for health care coverage through the new exchanges? Help us cover the Affordable Care Act by sharing your insurance story.

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