Obamacare: The March 31 deadline that came and went

Obama by DonkeyHotey

Obama by DonkeyHotey

By Savannah Marie
@savfmarie
April 3, 2014

Once upon a time, March 31 was the hard deadline for Americans to sign up for Obamacare through the new online federal marketplace. That deadline has now slipped to mid-April.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this ever-changing deadline is that it requires interested parties to perform a perfunctory and largely arbitrary gesture: They need to simply check a box on HealthCare.gov to indicate that they “attempted to enroll” before March 31st. This click makes them eligible for the new April deadline. It might go without saying, but the government won’t be checking up on whether people are being honest or not.

This is only the latest delay, for anyone who may be keeping track. In efforts to allay the fears of medium-sized businesses, the deadline for the employer mandate has been pushed back a full year to January 1 of next year.

The definition of ‘Deadline’

President Obama has said repeatedly that the March 31 deadline would not be allowed to slip. Insurance companies, he said, needed time to determine just how many people have signed up, so that they can set their rates for the coming year. Then again, Americans were also promised that they could keep their existing plans “if they wanted to,” and as we’ve come to find out, that promise was laced with fine print.

While this sort of legislation is more-or-less unprecedented, and some growing pains are normal, the problem here lies not in the speed bumps, but in the frequency with which this administration has had to backpedal, clarify, postpone or even contradict iftself, all while assuring the American people that Obamacare is working the way it’s supposed to.

The transformation of these deadlines from “hard” to “soft,” along with the many new individual exemptions that seem more like efforts to placate critics than to provide a consistent law has, in some sectors, thrown the credibility of the administration and the law itself out the window. So, what good is the word “deadline” if its definition has proved to be highly mutable?

The Lingering Questions

One of the most important questions being raised about Obamacare’s ever-shifting deadlines is whether or not the White House has any intention of enforcing its individual mandate. The slippery slope argument is, itself, a slippery slope, but when one accounts for the many times the deadline has been shifted as concessions to confused or frustrated health care customers, not to mention the ever-lengthening list of exemptions, one has to wonder what the end game even looks like anymore.

Bob Laszewski, an expert in health policy, recently took to his blog recently to say what we’ve all been thinking: That it’s unlikely that the administration will ever actually enforce the individually mandate. He cites the growing list of exemptions, which now includes people who have experienced recent financial hardships, filed for bankruptcy, received utility shutoff notices or even been subjected to domestic violence, and finally, the last exemption on the list reads like the ultimate concession: “You experienced another hardship in obtaining health care.” Does the barely-functioning healthcare.gov qualify?

Of course, there’s more than a fair share of politicking behind the scenes as well that somewhat tempers Obamacare’s ostensibly altruistic intentions. For example: Obamacare only works if as many people sign up as possible; in this way, the young and the healthy can help offset the cost of care of older or less healthy people.

Meanwhile, the administration has to navigate carefully the treacherous waters of the media; they’d rather not see stories of people experiencing financial difficulties because of the individual mandate penalties. This likely accounts for the comprehensive list of exceptions.

The honor system

One final question about the deadline and the exemptions: How will the IRS enforce this law? Starting in 2015, Americans will be asked on their tax returns whether they currently have health insurance. If they answer “no,” they are subject to paying a penalty – unless, of course, they qualify for an exemption. The problem is that this question, like the rest of the tax process, relies rather heavily on the honor system.

On the one hand, this suite of laws, and the administration that penned it, doesn’t trust that the American people are willing or able to comply with a hard deadline. On the other hand, they trust that those same people will willingly offer themselves up to pay a penalty if they haven’t bought healthcare – a penalty that would likely only worsen their financial instability.

As we said, some growing pains are not just expected but inevitable with any law that would bring such sweeping chances. Much of what Obamacare promises represents some much-needed change for many Americans. It’s a shame, then, that so much of it carries about as much water as a slice of Swiss cheese.

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Posted by on April 3, 2014. Filed under National Politics,Recent News,Top News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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