Shifting Obamacare deadlines are giving insurance industry fits

The Obamacare enrollment deadline to have coverage by Jan. 1 was Dec. 15 ... then Dec. 23 ... then Dec. 24. Insurance industry workers charged with making it all work are not amused.

Jon Elswick/AP
This Dec. 20 image shows part of the HealthCare.gov website. Anticipating heavy traffic on the government's health care website, the Obama administration effectively extended Monday's deadline for signing up for insurance by a day.

As Americans scramble to meet all the sliding Obamacare deadlines and rule changes this week, the harried insurance industry is struggling to keep up.

A record two million people visited HealthCare.gov on Monday, while state exchanges, too, experienced record traffic and new applications ahead of the Dec. 23 deadline – which, at the last minute, became a Dec. 24 deadline – to apply for health insurance in order to have coverage in place by Jan. 1.

This was already an extended deadline from Dec. 15, which was supposed to give insurance underwriters and carriers just enough time to have their clients signed up and ready to go for the start of the new year. But now they’re swamped with less than a week to go.

“If the launch had gone properly in October, we would not have been put between one rock and one gigantic hard place,” says David Oscar, communications chair of the New Jersey Association of Health Underwriters. “All the rules that are coming out last-minute are unfair to both the consumer and the carrier.”

Insurance workers know that the past weeks have been a matter of "grin and bear it." Like the Obamacare administration, the industry wants to enroll as many people as possible to avoid the specter of skyrocketing premiums next year. But for providers that have had to cope with the White House's shifting enrollment guidelines and goal posts, recent days have been an unwelcome reminder of how much depends on them, and how little time they have to get it right.

Nearly everyday, Mr. Oscar says, he’s on the phone telling a client that what he told them earlier no longer applies. And it has gotten so frequent that his assistants and coworkers decided to make it a game. They printed a picture of a yellow school bus and taped in next to his desk. They also printed little miniature David Oscars.

Now, whenever they hear him apologizing to a client, or explaining new rule changes, they run over and tape a picture of him underneath. “Health-care reform is throwing me and my industry under a bus,” Oscar says.

“We’ve been running for a deadline, and everybody wanted this coverage for Jan. 1, and then you sort of soft move it from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23,” he says. “And then on the 23rd, you let it leak that day? You don’t even give a heads-up announcement?”

Earlier this month, after appeals from the Obama administration, the major carriers said they would give people until Jan. 10 instead of Dec. 31 to pay their first month’s premium – another problem waiting to happen, many believe, as thousands of people will be technically covered without having paid a dime.

“The goal posts keep moving,” William Schiffbauer, an insurance attorney, told The New York Times Tuesday evening. “That raises questions about whether insurers can collect premiums in a timely manner to pay claims from doctors and hospitals.”

The industry has tried to accommodate many of these late changes requested by the Obama administration, but it has refused some, including allowing out-of-network coverage and retroactive enrollment.

“Health plans will continue to do everything they can to help consumers through the enrollment process and mitigate potential confusion or disruption caused by all of these last-minute changes to the rules and deadlines,” said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s Washington lobby group, in a statement Tuesday.

Those who began their applications by the Christmas Eve extension, but were unable to complete it, could be given even more extra time on a case-by-case basis by calling the marketplace call center. This means that New Year's Eve will probably be a busy day, too.   

“Our highest priority is making sure that everyone who wants to enroll to have health care coverage by January 1 is able to do so, particularly since consumers had a hard time accessing HealthCare.gov in October and November,” said Julie Bataille, communications director at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in a statement.

Those missing the deadline can still apply for coverage in the open-enrollment period, but their coverage won’t begin until Feb. 1.

“I was bombarded with phone calls between the 23rd and 24th,” Oscar says. “My wife actually looked at me while we were at the Rockettes on Monday, because my leg kept on shaking with my phone buzzing so much.”  

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