Obamacare's Second Open Enrollment Period Ends With Glitches, Headaches, Extensions, Delays—and More Surprises to Come



Obamacare's second open enrollment period—the annual window during which anyone can sign up for insurance in the law's health exchanges—ended on Sunday. It went out with a whimper. A series of technical glitches related to the site's income verification operation meant that, on the busy final day of sign-ups, many applicants couldn't get through, according to The Fiscal Times.

As a result, the last-minute process was, like a lot of things associated with Obamacare, kind of a headache. A federal government employee who lives in Virginia, which is part of the federal exchange system, trying to sign up a relative for coverage emailed me with some of his frustrations.

"Today's some sort of deadline, they're e-mailing me like mad," he wrote. "I signed in to try and fix that and tell them that my [relative] already got insurance. I was able to log in, but that's about all, there were buttons, I clicked them and nothing works. This is a solved problem, Amazon, Google, Facebook, hell every bank and probably 50% of small businesses have a more functional website than this."

As it turns out, the official deadline is only sort of the official deadline. Because of the last-minute computer errors, the administration is allowing a one-week extension for anyone who attempted to sign up but was blocked by technical problems. According to USA Today, the glitches prevented roughly half a million enrollments. How will the system know if someone attempting a late sign-up was previously blocked or not? They'll have to attest that they did. In other words, it's an extension for pretty much anyone willing to say there were problems.

It's not just the federal exchange, which covers 37 states, offering an extension. USA Today also reports that "most" state-based insurance portals are pushing back the deadline too. The deadline, in other words, is not really a deadline.

In the end, the newly extended deadline may not be the real deadline either. The administration is apparently considering an additional "special enrollment period" to coincide with tax filing season.

Here's the argument, such that it is: Some people may file their taxes and discover they owe a penalty for going uninsured last year. But having not signed up this year either, they won't have any easy option to get coverage and thus avoid the penalty next year. Several Congressional Democrats have urged the administration to create this additional sign-up window, and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell suggested last week that the option was being considered, according to Bloomberg News.

There is a practical dimension to this tweak; health insurance sold through the exchanges runs the calendar year, which helps create tax-time headaches. It is yet another way that the law was shabbily and thoughtlessly designed.

But as The New York Times notes, there is also a political dimension:

A special enrollment period would serve three purposes of great interest to the administration, health policy experts in and out of the government said. It would increase the number of people with health insurance, a goal long sought by Mr. Obama. It would reduce the number of people who must pay tax penalties, thus reducing anger at the White House and opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

In addition, providing extra time for enrollment would increase the number of people who received health insurance subsidies and thus had a personal stake in a Supreme Court case challenging payment of the subsidies in more than 30 states.

Part of the administration's legal strategy is to emphasize the disruption that would be caused by the Supreme Court ruling that federal exchange subsidies are not authorized by the law. But the administration is not only looking to emphasize the potential disruption; they are also looking for ways to increase it, by signing up more people. (Needless to say, the administration has not made a habit of informing people in the federal exchanges that their subsidies are at risk.)

Meanwhile, tax season looks like it will be frustrating, or at least uncertain, even for those who are already uninsured under Obamacare. Slightly more than half—about 53 percent—of people receiving subsidies under the law will be on the hook to repay some or all of what they were given, according to CNN, based on early returns data from Jackson Hewitt. For others whose subsidies were too small, the return will be larger than expected.

That's a pleasant surprise, but the point is that it's a surprise. Because Obamacare determines subsidies up front based on estimated income for the coming year, and then formally calculates them later on at tax time, it's not certain which side of the ledger you'll fall on until it's too late to change. With Obamacare, you never quite know what's coming next.