Obamacare 101: Enroll by March 31 to avoid penalty, White House clarifies

'If you sign up for insurance by the end of March, you will not face a penalty,' the White House said late Wednesday. Originally, the Obamacare law had been interpreted as giving people until Feb. 15, 2014, to have health coverage. Calls mount, including by Democrats, to give folks more time.

David Mercer/AP/File
In this Oct. 1, 2013 file photo, Patrick Lamanske of Champaign, Ill., works with Amanda Ziemnisky, right, of the Champaign Urbana Public Health District office in Champaign to try to sign his wife, Ping Lamanske, left, up for health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

The Obama administration has clarified the deadline by which Americans must sign up for health insurance to avoid paying a penalty. That deadline is in fact March 31, not Feb. 15,  according to guidance released by the White House Wednesday night.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), or “Obamacare,” allows Americans to be uninsured for three consecutive months in a calendar year without penalty. The individual mandate to buy insurance begins on Jan. 1, 2014, which means an individual can go without insurance through March 31, 2014, and not pay a fine.

Originally, the law was interpreted to mean that a person had to have coverage in effect by March 31. In the health-insurance exchanges – i.e, Healthcare.gov and the 14 state-run exchanges – that meant enrolling by Feb. 15 for a policy that starts March 1. Health-insurance policies begin on the first of the month, and so if one waited until after Feb. 15, the policy would not go into effect until April 1.

Now, the White House statement says, “If you sign up for insurance by the end of March, you will not face a penalty.”

The White House maintains that the timing of the individual mandate has not changed.

“The deadline for signing up for insurance is March 31,” said the guidance released Oct. 23 by Assistant White House Press Secretary Jessica Santillo. “It was true this morning. It is true tonight.”

The Obama administration has faced growing pressure to extend the deadline to buy health coverage, especially since the problem-riddled launch of Healthcare.gov on Oct. 1. On Oct. 22, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire became the first Democrat to make that call.

"Given the existing problems with the website, I urge you to consider extending open enrollment beyond the current end date of March 31, 2014. Allowing extra time for consumers is critically important so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the website, survey their options, and enroll," Senator Shaheen wrote in a letter to the White House.

"Further, in light of the difficulties individuals may be having with enrolling through Healthcare.gov, I ask that you clarify how the individual responsibility penalty will be administered and enforced. If an individual is unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems with enrollment, they should not be penalized because of lack of coverage."

Sens. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas and Mark Begich (D) of Alaska have backed Shaheen’s proposal. All three are up for reelection in 2014.

Another Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, is proposing legislation to delay the penalty on those who fail to buy insurance.

Also in the 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

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