Feature

Don't get too worked up over today's big ObamaCare deadline

This supposedly hard deadline is softer than it seems

Monday is the last day to sign up under ObamaCare for coverage that kicks in January 1... sort of.

Yes, most people must sign up by 11:59 p.m. Monday night to have coverage in place at the start of next year. And as such, the cutoff is being trumpeted as a major hard deadline for the president's health care law.

Yet due to a number of administration-mandated tweaks and delays, the deadline is actually kind of squishy, and thus more symbolic than anything.

Last Thursday, the administration announced that some of the hundreds of thousands of people who had lost their existing health care plans because of ObamaCare could be exempt from the individual mandate's penalty. The "hardship exemption" written into the mandate stipulates that someone may be considered exempt if there are "financial or domestic circumstances…that prevented him or her from obtaining coverage under a qualified health plan."

That means people who have unexpectedly been dropped from their existing plans do not necessarily need to find new ones just yet. And as the Wall Street Journal noted, there are 14 specific ways people can qualify for the "hardship exemption," some of which require little to no documentation to prove. In other words, there are more than a dozen ways around the December 23 deadline, including one specifically made available to a group of people who have become a political flashpoint for the health care law.

In addition to the new hardship exemption, the administration had already this month extended the deadline from December 23 to the end of the year for people to make their first premium payments for new coverage. And more recently, it urged insurers to retroactively extend coverage to people who sing up by the 23rd but do not make their first payment until January 10.

There will also reportedly be a "good faith" exemption for others who try but are unable to enroll by the Monday deadline, something that will further soften Monday's supposedly hard deadline, according to Reuters. As you may recall, the federal exchange marketplace functioned so poorly in the early going that it effectively prevented people from getting coverage even if they wanted to.

Then there's the fact that the original "hard" deadline was December 15. But when Healthcare.gov crashed in the early going, the White House extended the deadline to the 23rd.

The White House had hoped to enroll 3.3 million people in new health plans through the federally run marketplace by the end of the year. They've so far enrolled about one-third that number. And though the pace of enrollments is trending upward, polls continue to find the law deeply unpopular; a CNN survey released Monday found a record low 35 percent of Americans supported the law.

Still, there's plenty of time for people to find coverage in the new year before they'll be penalized for going uninsured. Due to another extension, the uninsured have until April 1 to enroll in coverage before they'll be hit by the individual mandate's penalty.

So in that sense, the hard deadline for the law itself is April 1 — or, given the numerous delays to date, it's the law's hard deadline for now.

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