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White House Pushes Next Year's Health Plan Sign-Ups Later

Nov 22, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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Another day brings another delay for the federal health law known as the Affordable Care Act.

On Friday, the Obama administration announced that, starting next year, it is pushing back the start of the sign-up period for those buying individual and small business insurance until mid-November, rather than mid-October. That will give insurance companies some extra time to set their premiums, given this year's difficulties.

And, as some analysts point out, the delay may also ease some political concerns for Democrats.

The open enrollment period in 2014 will begin on Nov. 15 and last until January, White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a press briefing.

"This gives [insurance companies] more time to assess the pool of people who are getting insurance through the marketplaces and then make decisions about what rates will look like in the coming year," Carney told reporters.

The delay also gives the administration a bit of breathing space in case, as expected, it needs to extend the current enrollment period past the March 31 deadline, if ongoing problems with the website aren't fixed. Right now, the schedule has insurance companies tasked with filing next year's proposed rates in April. The change would give them until May.

But some question whether the additional month actually gives insurers much more information.

"They're going to have marginally a little more data," says Robert Laszewski, a health industry consultant. "But it's not really going to matter, in terms of their being able to calculate rates."

So what is driving the change? Laszewski says that's easy: politics. Moving the start date of open enrollment to Nov. 15 means that if premiums for the next year are going to rise, as many fear, it won't be known until safely after Election Day.

Still, there are downsides to changing the dates, at least for consumers. Brian Haile, who heads health policy at the tax preparation firm Jackson Hewitt, says it could hit people who lack health insurance particularly hard.

Putting the Christmas holiday "smack dab in the middle" of the open enrollment period means that decisions about health insurance will compete head-to-head with holiday gift-buying, Haile points out.

"And that's a real challenge," he says. "Because if you're trying to get someone to sign up for insurance, you don't want to be competing with their desire to put something under the tree."

As long as the administration has decided it has the authority to move the dates for open enrollment around, Haile says, it ought to consider moving the decision point to the season when the uninsured have the most disposable income. That would be spring, when tax refunds arrive.

The Obama administration on Friday also pushed back a date associated with 2013 sign-ups. Until now, in order to have coverage start on Jan. 1, 2014, you had to complete the enrollment process by Dec. 15. That date is now being moved to Dec. 23, to help accommodate the crowds expected to flood the federal and state websites in the coming weeks.

The shift in dates may be a reprieve for consumers, but it prompted some concern among members of the insurance industry.

"It makes it more challenging to process enrollments in time for coverage to begin on Jan. 1," says Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group. "Ultimately it will depend on how many people enroll in those last few days."

Zirkelbach and officials from the Department of Health and Human Services also note that anyone signing up this year must pay their first month's premium before the end of December to have coverage take effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

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