White House delays ObamaCare enrollment deadline for sickest Americans

The Obama administration announced Thursday that it was extending a health insurance program that covers Americans with pre-existing conditions to give them more time to sign up for insurance on the embattled ObamaCare exchanges.

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The administration said the federal government will extend the Pre-Existing Conditions Insurance Plan (PCIP), slated to end at the end of the year, for an additional month.

"Today, as part of our efforts to smooth the transition to the Marketplaces for those seeking coverage that begins in January, we are taking steps to ensure that Americans enrolled in the federal PCIP insurance plan will not face a lapse when the new year begins." Medicare spokesman Aaron Albright said in a statement. "We are committed to providing consumers additional flexibilities while they evaluate and select a quality, affordable, health plan that meets their needs.”

The $5 billion program was intended as bridge health coverage to sick patients waiting for full implementation of ObamaCare. The administration says about 135,000 Americans have benefited from the insurance coverage.

But the program initially failed to enroll as many people as expected and was plagued by high costs. In February, the Health and Human Services Department stopped accepting new applicants into the program to ensure it would have enough money to cover the people already enrolled.

"Running out of money before the end of the year is something we're trying to avoid," said Gary Cohen, director of the federal Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, in congressional testimony.

Outside groups applauded the move, saying it ensured the sickest patients would not face a coverage gap as the administration continued to work out issues with the enrollment process.

"Extending the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan will give tens of thousands of people with a history of cancer or another serious disease the security of knowing they will not face a costly gap in coverage on Jan. 1 if they cannot enroll in a marketplace plan by Dec. 23," said Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, in a statement.

"Extending coverage under PCIP gives patients valuable additional time to select the marketplace plan that best meets their unique needs."

But the move also seemed like it could be a tacit admission that, despite the administration's assurances, difficulties remain with the ObamaCare enrollment process.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest insisted that individuals who tried to enroll before Dec. 23 could get coverage for the new year, despite lingering issues with the back end of the ObamaCare website.

"We are confident that we have put in place the kind of solutions that are required to confirm that individuals who sign up and enroll in a health care plan by December 23 will be in a position to have that coverage take effect on January 1," Earnest said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney sidestepped questions about whether the extension was made out of concern that individuals with preexisting conditions hadn't been able to sign up for new coverage.

"Well, some people have already changed coverage — and this is for those who have not and want an extra month to smooth that transition," Carney said.

This report was updated at 2:49 p.m.