Administration officials said that the rejiggered deadline is unrelated to the many technical problems that have emerged with the Web site, HealthCare.gov, in its first three weeks. Instead, they said, it is designed to clear up a timing confusion about the 2010 law, which for the first time requires most Americans to buy health coverage or face a penalty.
Under the law, health plans available through the new federal or state marketplaces will start Jan. 1, but the open enrollment period runs through the end of March. The law also says that people will be fined only if they do not have coverage for three months in a row. The question has been this: Do people need to be covered by March 31, or merely to have signed up by then, given that insurance policies have a brief lag before they take effect?
The administration made clear Wednesday night that people who buy coverage at any point during the open enrollment period will not pay a penalty.
It is the latest sign that the health-care law remains a moving target, even after the launch of the federal insurance marketplace, which has faced myriad problems that have frustrated many people trying to sign up for coverage.
Contractors and others have begun assigning blame for the Web site troubles, and the fault-finding will get its first extensive public airing Thursday, when four of the contractors involved in the project will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In the written testimony submitted to the panel in advance, CGI Federal, the main contractor on the project, takes partial blame for the site’s shortcomings. But it also notes that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an agency within HHS, was the “ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance” of the site. And it blames a piece created by another contractor, Quality Software Services (QSSI), for creating the initial bottleneck.
QSSI built part of the online registration system that crashed shortly after the Oct. 1 launch and locked out many people for days. In a statement, the company counters that it was not the only one responsible for the registration system, which is now working.
“There are a number of other components to the registration system, all of which must work together seamlessly to ensure registration,” said Matt Stearns, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group, the parent company for QSSI. “The [QSSI-built] tool has been working well for weeks.”
But both contractors are likely to be taken to task by Republican and Democratic committee members. They were among the vendors who testified at a Sept. 10 Energy and Commerce Committee hearing that their parts of the project were moving along well, and that the Web site would be ready Oct. 1. Those assurances are likely to be questioned Thursday.