Health-Law Avoiders Won’t Get Reprieve This Time Around

Earlier this year, the Obama administration offered uninsured people a reprieve if they missed the sign-up deadline for 2015 coverage, originally set at Feb. 15. People were given through April to sign up if they said they had learned about the penalty for going uninsured only when they filed their taxes. The idea was to help people avoid a situation in which they were fined for going uninsured in 2014 and then learned they would face another fine for 2015—with no opportunity to remedy it.

For 2016 coverage, the deadline is earlier—and the Obama administration was adamant in a blog post Monday that there would be no more changes to it.

“It’s important to remember that the final deadline to sign up for 2016 coverage through is January 31,” wrote Kevin Counihan, chief executive of the site, which administers the health law in about three dozen states that declined to operate their own exchanges.

“A Special Enrollment Period around the April 15 tax filing deadline won’t be offered this year. If you don’t enroll by then, you could have to wait another year to get coverage and may have to pay the fee when you file your 2016 income taxes.” the post said.

The Obama administration is seeking to boost the law’s sign-up numbers, amid an uphill battle. Federal officials predict only modest gains in the number of people who use or state equivalents to get private coverage, in large part because they say they haven’t yet found a message that can persuade people to buy insurance if they have resisted doing so.

Enrollment activists on the ground have long said they have emphasized the health law’s requirement to buy coverage or pay a penalty to motivate undecided shoppers. But until recently, the Obama administration has been reluctant to embrace that “stick” message, preferring instead to use a “carrot” message that focuses on the benefits of insurance.

The penalty is now approaching its maximum limits set under the health law. Uninsured people who file their taxes next April will likely learn they face a penalty of at least $325 for an individual, or 2% of annual household income if that is higher, for going without coverage in 2015.

If they remain uninsured, they will also find out that they face a penalty of at least $695, or 2.5% of their annual household income for 2016.

The extension last year won applause from consumer groups seeking to boost enrollment numbers, who had long argued that tax-filing deadlines were an opportunity to persuade people to enroll because of the individual mandate’s reliance on the tax code for its administration.

But the shift sparked concerns among some in the insurance industry that relaxed deadlines would prompt more individuals to hold out for as long as they were healthy and sign up only when they needed medical services. UnitedHealth Group Chief Executive Officer Stephen Hemsley mentioned that concern when announcing late last month that it expected to take a big hit from its insurance sales under the Affordable Care Act.

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