Get ready to hear more about the individual mandate again

The enrollment deadline is just three weeks ago. (Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
The enrollment deadline is just three weeks away. (Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

Today marks three weeks before the end of Obamacare open enrollment – which will also mark the start of penalties for skipping health insurance coverage.

Much of the messaging from supporters of the health care law during the enrollment period has focused on the value of having insurance, as opposed to the tax hit for not obtaining coverage.

There’s good reason for that. The mandate is the most unpopular element of the law, so why remind people of that? Further, just a very small segment of the population in 2014 is expected to face the mandate penalty, which is generally much cheaper than the cost of insurance itself.

With the looming March 31 deadline to enroll in 2014 individual health plans, you're likely to start hearing more about the mandate. Despite all the health care law’s shifting deadlines, the Obama administration has been firm that the March 31 deadline isn’t moving.

Gary Cohen, a top federal health official overseeing health insurance exchanges, told a health insurers’ conference on Thursday that the next few weeks of messaging will place a “very strong emphasis” on the March 31 deadline. The messaging will make clear that “failure to act now could subject you to a penalty for failing to obtain [coverage],” Cohen said.

Minnesota’s state-run exchange, known as MNsure, provided a glimpse today of what that messaging could look like, releasing a new ad emphasizing the March 31 deadline:

The 30-second spot airing statewide through the end of the month mentions a “requirement” for most people to obtain insurance, but it doesn’t say anything about penalties for skipping coverage. The Minnesota exchange left out that information because of ad time constraints, according to MNsure spokeswoman Jenni Bowring-McDonough.

“The new 30-second spot … did not allow enough time to also include a mention of the penalty — we needed to work within the time that the ad allowed and this deadline is key,” she wrote. “Our messages in the recent weeks — including today’s press release — have included mentions of the penalty that consumers may incur if they do not have coverage by the deadline, and we will continue to include that point as we proceed through the coming weeks.”

The penalty for skipping coverage in 2014 is $95 or 1 percent of taxable income, whichever is higher. That detail about the 1 percent is sometimes left out news reports and discussions about the mandate, prompting the Tax Policy Center last week to launch the ACA Tax Penalty Calculator to show how much the mandate could really cost.

A married couple earning $130,000 with a couple of kids would face a penalty of $11,000 if they all went without coverage, according to the TPC tax calculator. It’s an extreme example, TPC says, but it’s there to show that the tax penalty could be much higher than just $95.

Jason Millman covers all things health policy, with a focus on Obamacare implementation. He previously covered health policy for Politico.
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