Pro-ObamaCare groups make late-enrollment push

Pro-ObamaCare groups make late-enrollment push
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The Obama administration and health reform advocates are gearing up for a new push to sign people up for the Affordable Care Act as enrollment reopens on Sunday for a limited time.

The so-called “special enrollment period” begins Sunday and ends on April 30. It is designed to fall around tax-filing season, giving people a chance to sign up if they realize only while filing their taxes that they have to pay a penalty for not having insurance.

The administration announced the period just four weeks ago, on Feb. 20, under pressure from congressional Democrats and advocates. That means there has been little time to prepare for the enrollment drive.

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Congressional Republicans have been portraying ObamaCare as a burden during tax season, and they will be on the lookout for any slip-ups. The GOP has already seized on an error that resulted in 800,000 people on ObamaCare plans being sent the wrong tax information.

On a call with reporters Friday, administration officials portrayed the enrollment period as part of an effort to help familiarize people with the new system of taxes linked to health insurance—and a tax penalty if they aren’t covered.

“It's a new experience for tax filers, it's a new experience for us,” said Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

“Our top priority is finding ways to help make these experiences as seamless as possible —  acknowledging that it is the first time, though,” he said.

He cited a McKinsey & Company study this week that found that 40 percent of uninsured people do not know that there is a penalty for lacking health insurance.

Enroll America, one of the main groups that helps sign people up under ObamaCare, is ramping up a push to make people aware of the penalty and sign them up.

It is sending emails to its list of 1.3 million people, linking to eligibility information. Over 30,000 appointments are available in the next two weeks for people to meet with an expert to help them through the process. Enroll America is also holding trainings for tax preparers and sending them staff, with a focus on low-income areas.

Families USA, a major pro-ObamaCare non-profit, is also working with thousands of enrollment assistors across the country.

Enrollment is expected to be more of a challenge for this period than it was during the regular sign-up time, which ended Feb. 15.

“This opportunity is obviously a far more complicated one to talk about with the consumer,” said Cathy Kaufmann, enrollment program director at Families USA. “Many consumers don't even realize that special enrollment periods exist.”

She added that while the error on the tax forms last month has not showed up as a major problem for sign-up efforts so far, it does not help the situation.

“It just adds to confusion that's already out there,” she said.

People without insurance will still have to pay the tax penalty for lacking insurance in 2014, but if they sign up in the new period, they will avoid having to pay it for most of 2015.

That is unless they qualify for an exemption from the mandate to buy insurance — people for whom coverage is deemed unaffordable fall under that classification, as do some others such as certain religious groups.

Explaining the exemptions adds another wrinkle to enrollment efforts.

“We're really focusing on educating people and making them aware about the availability of these exemptions,” said Kevin Counihan, the CEO of the ObamaCare marketplace.

ObamaCare enrollments are already at 11.7 million people, and the added period provides a chance to build on that number. However, administration officials said Friday that they do not have an estimate for how many people will sign up in the new period.

In January, the Treasury Department projected that six million people would have to pay the tax penalty for lacking insurance in 2014.

Republicans, meanwhile, are framing the effort as another chapter in a complicated and meddlesome government expansion.

After the tax form error last month, Republicans pounced. 

"The Obama administration has built a healthcare law so complex, so confusing, and so costly that even they don't know how to properly administer it," Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) said then.