The Obama administration said Wednesday night that it would give Americans who buy health insurance through new online marketplaces an extra six weeks to obtain coverage before they risk a penalty.
The revised rule means those who buy coverage through the exchange will have until March 31 to sign up for a plan, according to an official with the Health and Human Services Department.
Administration officials said the change is unrelated to the many problems that have emerged with the marketplace's website, <f"SansBlackCondensed">HealthCare.gov<f"DMCrown">, in its first three weeks. Instead, they said, the shift relates to a different source of confusion that they called a "disconnect" among dates in the rules for buying coverage.
For the first time, the sprawling 2010 law intended to revise the nation's health-care system requires most Americans to carry coverage. Health plans sold through the exchanges will become available Jan. 1, but fines in the law for people who don't obtain insurance begin after they've been without coverage for three consecutive months.
The confusion is this: In the initial year, the open enrollment period to buy health plans through the federal exchange -- or 14 separate state ones -- runs through March 31. But people who buy coverage in late March probably will not get that insurance for a month.
So under the new rule, anyone who buys coverage during the open enrollment period will avoid a penalty, whether coverage has started by April 1 or not.
Administration officials said Wednesday they would issue formal guidance in the next few days about the change.
Joanne Peters, an HHS spokeswoman, portrayed the new deadline as not touching the fundamentals of the health care law, which is under a fresh round of criticism for its myriad technical flaws.
"The individual mandate timing has not changed," she said. "The deadline for signing up for insurance is March 31. It was true this a.m. It is true tonight."