On March 12, in a hearing before Congress, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was asked whether the Obama administration would extend Obamacare's open enrollment period beyond its scheduled close date of March 31. "No sir," Sebelius responded.
Later that day, a spokesperson for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, expanded on that point. "We have no plans to extend the open enrollment period," she said. "In fact we don't actually have the statutory authority to extend the open enrollment period in 2014."
The message was unmistakable: The administration would not, and could not, extend Obamacare's enrollment period.
There's just one catch. Last night, the administration confirmed to The Washington Post that the open enrollment period would be extended for anyone who wants it extended.
The gimmick here is that, technically, open enrollment will still end on March 31, as planned. But the administration now says they will allow for a special extended enrollment period for those people who tried to sign up before March 31 and, for some reason, could not complete the process. People will be able to request this extension until some not-yet-determined date in the middle of April.
And how will the administration determine if someone is eligible for this period? Here's how The Washington Post explains the verification process:
Under the new rules, people will be able to qualify for an extension by checking a blue box on HealthCare.gov to indicate that they tried to enroll before the deadline. This method will rely on an honor system; the government will not try to determine whether the person is telling the truth.
The verification process is that there is no verification process. Absolutely anyone who checks the box will be able to get an extension. It's a de facto extension of open enrollment for anyone who asks for it.
The upshot is that the administration is now doing exactly what they said would not do, and did not have the legal authority to do, simply by describing it in a slightly different way. To put it another way, the administration is using the fiction of a limited special enrollment period as cover for a lie and an illegal action.
This isn't even the first time the administration has done this. On the same day that HHS Secretary Sebelius promised that enrollment would not be extended, she also promised that the individual mandate to purchase insurance would not be delayed. Again, it's not—technically. But the administration expanded and clarified the rules for the law's "hardship exemption" in such a way as to essentially give anyone a pass. There are 14 ways to avoid the mandate, the last of which is a vague catch-all category for unspecified hardships, no documentation required.
The pattern reveals the administration's shallow commitment to keeping its word: When they promise they won't do something, you can bet they won't—but that they very well might do the exact same thing by a different name instead.