Obamacare 101: Why the real deadline is Feb. 15

Under Obamacare, the uninsured have until March 31 to be covered and avoid paying a fine. But some technicalities mean that people may have to sign up a month and a half before that.

Jonathan Bachman/Reuters
The federal government forms for applying for health coverage are seen at a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as 'Obamacare,' outside the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Jackson, Mississippi October 4, 2013.

[Since this story was published, the White House has issued new guidance for the deadline to sign up for health insurance. See updated information at "Obamacare 101: Enroll by March 31 to avoid penalty, White House clarifies."]

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance purchased via a government-run health-insurance exchange by Dec. 15 will kick in on Jan. 1, 2014. 

But the uninsured have until March 31 to be covered and avoid paying a fine. That’s because under the law, Americans can go uninsured for up to three months without penalty. (After that, in the first year, the fine is as low as $95, then escalates in the following years.)

So if one wants to push buying insurance right up to the edge, logic would dictate that the deadline is March 15, right?

Not so fast! Most companies start their policies on the first of the month, and so to be covered on March 31, one has to buy insurance that starts on March 1. To get insurance that starts on March 1, one has to sign up by around Feb. 15.

An Obama administration official confirmed this timeline to the Associated Press, noting that the official was not authorized to speak publicly and insisted on anonymity.

Maybe the deadline to avoid penalties can be tweaked back a day to April 1, thus giving the uninsured another month to shop – and the federal government more breathing room to get its act together with HealthCare.gov. Some of the 14 state-run exchanges have also had major problems, and that would give them more time, too.

For now, though, HealthCare.gov and state exchanges are enduring widespread scorn over their performance since the open enrollment period began Oct. 1. Only 7 percent of Americans say the launch has gone “very well” or “somewhat well,” while 40 percent say it hasn’t gone well and 20 percent say it’s gone somewhat well, according to an AP-GfK poll released Oct. 10. Thirty percent didn’t have an opinion.

The poll, which was conducted Oct. 3-7, also found that 7 percent of Americans say somebody in their household has tried to sign up for insurance through one of the exchanges. That could represent more than 20 million Americans, the AP reports. It demonstrates wide interest in the exchanges, a point Obama administration officials have emphasized when asked about all the problems with HealthCare.gov.

So who would be satisfied with the new health-care exchanges? There are probably several categories: people who are now able to buy insurance after being turned down because of preexisting conditions. (Insurance companies can no longer bar them from coverage.) Then there are the already-insured who are discovering they can get a better deal via the exchange, including a federal subsidy in some cases. And some of the states that run their own exchanges have not had massive technology problems, such as Kentucky and Connecticut. People in those states might also be satisfied customers, especially if they fit in one of the first two categories.

Other articles in the Monitor's Obamacare 101 series:

What happens starting Oct. 1?

What to know if you already have health insurance

How the federal subsidy works

What to know if you opt out of buying health insurance

What owners of small businesses need to know

• When will the enrollment glitches be fixed?

What college students need to know

Seven ways you can sign up, despite Web woes

Enroll by March 31 to avoid penalty, White House clarifies

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.