5:01pm

Fri November 22, 2013
Politics

White House Pushes Next Year's Health Plan Sign-Ups Later

Originally published on Sun November 24, 2013 6:32 pm

Another day brings another delay for the federal health law known as the Affordable Care Act.

On Friday, the Obama administration announced that, starting next year, it is pushing back the start of the sign-up period for those buying individual and small business insurance until mid-November, rather than mid-October. That will give insurance companies some extra time to set their premiums, given this year's difficulties.

And, as some analysts point out, the delay may also ease some political concerns for Democrats.

The open enrollment period in 2014 will begin on Nov. 15 and last until January, White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a press briefing.

"This gives [insurance companies] more time to assess the pool of people who are getting insurance through the marketplaces and then make decisions about what rates will look like in the coming year," Carney told reporters.

The delay also gives the administration a bit of breathing space in case, as expected, it needs to extend the current enrollment period past the March 31 deadline, if ongoing problems with the website aren't fixed. Right now, the schedule has insurance companies tasked with filing next year's proposed rates in April. The change would give them until May.

But some question whether the additional month actually gives insurers much more information.

"They're going to have marginally a little more data," says Robert Laszewski, a health industry consultant. "But it's not really going to matter, in terms of their being able to calculate rates."

So what is driving the change? Laszewski says that's easy: politics. Moving the start date of open enrollment to Nov. 15 means that if premiums for the next year are going to rise, as many fear, it won't be known until safely after Election Day.

Still, there are downsides to changing the dates, at least for consumers. Brian Haile, who heads health policy at the tax preparation firm Jackson Hewitt, says it could hit people who lack health insurance particularly hard.

Putting the Christmas holiday "smack dab in the middle" of the open enrollment period means that decisions about health insurance will compete head-to-head with holiday gift-buying, Haile points out.

"And that's a real challenge," he says. "Because if you're trying to get someone to sign up for insurance, you don't want to be competing with their desire to put something under the tree."

As long as the administration has decided it has the authority to move the dates for open enrollment around, Haile says, it ought to consider moving the decision point to the season when the uninsured have the most disposable income. That would be spring, when tax refunds arrive.

The Obama administration on Friday also pushed back a date associated with 2013 sign-ups. Until now, in order to have coverage start on Jan. 1, 2014, you had to complete the enrollment process by Dec. 15. That date is now being moved to Dec. 23, to help accommodate the crowds expected to flood the federal and state websites in the coming weeks.

The shift in dates may be a reprieve for consumers, but it prompted some concern among members of the insurance industry.

"It makes it more challenging to process enrollments in time for coverage to begin on Jan. 1," says Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group. "Ultimately it will depend on how many people enroll in those last few days."

Zirkelbach and officials from the Department of Health and Human Services also note that anyone signing up this year must pay their first month's premium before the end of December to have coverage take effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel.

In this part of the program, the ongoing scramble to implement the new federal health care law. The Obama administration announced a change today. They are adjusting next year's sign-up dates for new health plans under the Affordable Care Act. Again, this is for people applying next year, 2014, for coverage starting in 2015. The sign-up period for insurance in the health exchanges will start a moth later than planned, mid-November rather than mid-October. That gives insurance companies extra time to set premiums. And as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, it may also ease a political concern for Democrats.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Until now, everyone has been focused on problems people are having signing up for insurance that begins next year. This change affects what happens the year after that. White House spokesman, Jay Carney, announced the delay during today's briefing.

JAY CARNEY: HHS has indicated its intent to shift the 2015 schedule for the health insurance marketplace by one month, so that the health plan application deadline would be in May and open enrollment would begin on November 15th.

ROVNER: That means open enrollment would run from next November through January of 2015, rather than October through December of 2014. Why the extra month? Carney said it would give insurance companies more time to plan for next year, particularly if, as expected, the rocky roll out of HealthCare.gov results in a rush of applications at the end of the current sign-up period.

CARNEY: This gives them more time to assess the pool of people who are getting insurance through the marketplaces and make decisions about what rates will look like in the coming year.

ROVNER: But insurance experts say the additional month actually won't give insurers very much more information. Robert Laszewski is a health industry consultant.

ROBERT LASZEWSKI: They're going to have marginally a little more data but it's not really going to matter in terms of their being able to calculate rates.

ROVNER: So what is driving the change? Laszewski says that's easy, politics.

LASZEWSKI: This is entirely to get the 2015 rates made public after the election.

ROVNER: Indeed, moving the start date of open enrollment to November 15th means that if premiums for next year rise, as many fear, it won't be known until safely after election day 2014. That could spare Democrats in endangered seats from constituents facing huge premium hikes just before they go to the polls. But there are downsides to changing the dates, at least for consumers.

Brian Hale, who heads health policy at the tax preparation firm Jackson Hewitt, says it could hit those buying insurance for the first time particularly hard by asking for money when they can least afford it.

BRIAN HALE: By putting the open enrollment period with the Christmas holiday smack dab in the middle means that health insurance will compete head to head with holiday consumption. And that's a real challenge because if you're trying to get someone to sign up for insurance, you don't want to be competing with their desire to put something under the tree.

ROVNER: Hale says as long as the administration has decided it has the authority to move the dates for open enrollment around, it ought to consider doing it when the uninsured have the most disposable income, which is in the spring when they get their tax refunds.

Meanwhile, this afternoon, the administration made another change to a date associated with this year's sign ups. Until now, in order to have coverage start on January 1st, 2014, you had to complete the enrollment process by December 15th. That date is now being pushed back to December 23rd. That's to help accommodate the crowds expected to flood the federal and state websites in the coming weeks. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.