By Elise Viebeck - 03/01/14 06:00 AM EST
Pressure is rising on the White House as ObamaCare reaches its final month of enrollment roughly 3 million sign-ups behind its target goal.
The administration hoped to enroll 7 million people in private plans during the reform's first year, but that became all but impossible after the botched launch of HealthCare.gov.
It's a heavy lift between clamoring Republicans and a public that's in the dark.
Under normal circumstances, the administration could expect most uninsured patients to register for health plans right before the deadline on March 31.
This was true before the last ObamaCare cutoff in December, and it happens regularly during insurance open enrollment periods.
But a poll released this week threw cold water on that expectation by revealing the public's ignorance about when they need to gain health coverage or pay a fine.
Three in four uninsured patients are not aware of the March 31 deadline, the Kaiser Family Foundation found in its monthly tracking survey. Only 24 percent could name the date correctly.
The finding underscores how the administration must not just convince people to sign up for ObamaCare, but highlight the cutoff date.
“Deadlines are something that Americans react to, whether it's filing or taxes or other responsibilities in society,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and adviser to John Kerry's 2004 run for president.
“Highlighting that date can be a really positive tool. Just making people aware of the deadline is likely to motivate them to join the system.”
Ironically, the March 31 date will get its own publicity from House Republicans next week when they vote to eliminate the individual mandate penalty for this year.
Most people without health insurance will be fined $95 or 1 percent of their income unless they're covered by the end of this month.
The penalty is unprecedented and was the subject of a Supreme Court challenge to the law. The GOP is anxious to heighten its unpopularity as a way to hammer Democrats around the country.
Democrats, meanwhile, are convinced they can turn the tables by pointing to the GOP's insistence on repealing instead of fixing the healthcare law.
“Voters want to see the Affordable Care Act fixed and improved, not repealed,” stated a memo from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) this week.
Indeed, this week’s Kaiser poll found that a majority believe ObamaCare should remain the law, either in its current form or with improvements (56 precent).
And while opinions of ObamaCare are still negative overall, Democrats point out that GOP attacks have not made those opinions much worse over time.
The DCCC pointed a finger at Republicans this week when Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) cast doubt on a promised vote for an ObamaCare replacement plan.
“They've been making the same false claim for years,” the committee stated in an email, referring to GOP vows to “replace” ObamaCare.
“Without fail, their 'alternative' has boiled down to repeal every time.”
The administration is getting help from health insurance companies and groups like Enroll America, which are pulling out all the stops to reach ethnic minorities and other demographics least likely to carry coverage.
Federal health officials also widened access to ObamaCare subsidies for states where the exchanges were — or are — experiencing serious problems.
The quiet move was in line with other decisions to ease the rollout by pushing deadlines, a trend experts say will continue through 2014.
For this month, however, strategists said the administration should focus on one basic message.
“Millions of people are signing up,” said Devine. “That number in itself offers a fundamental reassurance to people that the system is working.”