Obamacare Enrollment Isn't Over, After All

The Obama administration will let people buy insurance to avoid tax penalties.

People who are just now figuring out that Obamacare has an individual mandate will get a second opportunity to buy coverage, the Health and Human Services Department said Friday.

Technically, the window to sign up for insurance through HealthCare.gov closed this past weekend. But HHS officials said they'll make an exception for people who decide they want to buy coverage after realizing that they'll owe a penalty for being uninsured. Although fiddling with Obamacare deadlines will surely draw criticism from Republicans, the change was kind of a no-brainer for the administration: It will increase total enrollment and will also make congressional Democrats and liberal advocacy groups happy. They've been pushing hard for a special enrollment period, citing fears of a new round of bad publicity as people get hit with tax penalties only to find that they're not able to buy insurance.

The health care law's individual mandate requires most taxpayers to either buy insurance or pay a penalty—this year, it's $95 or 1 percent of your income, whichever is greater. This is the first year the IRS is collecting that penalty, and many uninsured consumers won't realize they owe it until they file their taxes.

"Our intention is that this is one year only, for people who have not been in the communication loop," said Andy Slavitt, principal deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The whole point of the penalty is to motivate people to sign up for health insurance. But that doesn't work as intended if, when people get their tax bill and decide to buy insurance instead, they find that the insurance market is closed. And that's why the administration will let some consumers buy coverage around tax season, outside the normal open-enrollment window.

To qualify for the special enrollment period, consumers will have to attest that they don't have health insurance and that they didn't know they owed a penalty until after open enrollment ended. The special window will be open from March 15 to April 30 in the 37 states relying on HealthCare.gov for enrollment.

State-run exchanges can set their own policies, and a handful have said they're considering similar extensions. About 6 million people will face the penalty this year, but HHS officials said they don't have any estimates of how many people might take advantage of the new enrollment window.