Who In Washington Deserves An Extension On Monday's Obamacare Deadline?

Mar 28, 2014

Washington’s health exchange is wrestling with how to accommodate people who have had trouble signing up for insurance. The March 31 deadline has been looming for months, as officials urge people to get covered or face a fine.

But considering the well-known problems at the state and federal exchanges, officials figured some people will need an extension. The question is who gets it.

The federal government announced that people can get extra time simply by checking a little box on HealthCare.gov attesting that they’ve had trouble completing their application.

Washington state has gone with a slightly more conservative approach, and not everyone is happy about that. People here have to demonstrate they’ve made some effort, not just claim they tried.

“We really believe strongly that we wanted people, first of all, to get their work done, and to really feel like they needed to get their work done by March 31. And then to be as responsible and proactive as possible with anyone who had difficulty with our system,” said exchange chief of staff Pam MacEwan at a board meeting.

But defining when the system’s at fault is up for interpretation. The state’s guidelines talk about technological obstacles on the website, but Sarah Kwiatkowski of Northwest Health Law Advocates says there are more barriers than that.

“Our concern is that for those individuals who may not have had a technological problem, but maybe they’ve begun an application and they have a question, and they’ve been trying to get through on the call center and they can’t,” she told board members.

Advocates say those people are more likely to be non-English speakers and people with limited Internet access. The call center is fielding about 11,000 calls a day, and keeping them on hold for about 90 minutes on average, suggesting that enrollment difficulties are still widespread.

Besides the fine, people who don’t have insurance by March 31 won’t be able to enroll again until November unless they have a major life change, such as getting married or switching jobs. The deadline does not apply to Medicaid, or to American Indians and Alaska Natives.