What the Obamacare 'Special Enrollment Period' Extension Actually Means

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As politicians on the left and the right try to spin Tuesday's Obamacare news — "special enrollment period" vs. "yet another delay" — here's what you actually need to know: insurance companies expected this and deadline extensions for government programs are normal, and legal. 

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday night that people who attempt to enroll in a health care plan through the federal exchange by mid-April will be given a special enrollment period of an unknown length. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Obama administration was planning on creating some kind of work around for people who experienced technical problems. While detractors of the law will argue that this is another sign of "the unintended consequences of the Democrats’ failed healthcare law," as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus put it, it's not. Insurance companies expected this and are waiting to see what the full plan is, and the precedent for special enrollment periods is well established.

Insurance companies are "guarded"

The main concern here is how insurance companies think this move will affect them, and the premium proposals they'll submit to states insurance boards in May and June. According to Politico, several health plan officials said they were "guarded" and waiting to see what the administration's full plan was. While a slightly longer enrollment period means larger risk pools and possibly more young adults, they don't want the period to go on indefinitely. 

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Pushing deadlines is normal

Detractors of the law have already tried to paint this as more signs of the administration's incompetence. “Another day, another Obamacare delay," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in a statement. The use of the word "delay" is inaccurate, but more importantly, it shows a short memory. President Bush's 2006 rollout of Medicare Part D was equally rocky, and Bush eventually waived late fees for low income Americans and extended their enrollment period from May 15 to December 31

More important, this Affordable Care Act allows the Department of Health and Human Services to grant special enrollment periods. As Nicholas Bagley, a health law professor at the University of Michigan, explained last November, the ACA allows HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to "to establish 'special enrollment periods' that are 'similar to' the special enrollment periods outlined in Medicare Part D." Bagley continues:

... Specifically, where a beneficiary can’t enroll because of “the error … or inaction” of the federal government, the Secretary can establish a “special enrollment period.” Same thing for a beneficiary who, in the Secretary’s judgment, faces an “exceptional circumstance.”

Both Nevada and Oregon, which have shaky exchanges (at best), have requested similar extensions. It wouldn't be surprising if all the state-run exchanges, even the ones that work, follow the administration's lead. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.