enrollment deadline extended

By Nancy MetcalfConsumer Reports

With still firing on one cylinder, the government has decided to give consumers six extra weeks to enroll in a health plan through their state Health Insurance Marketplace without risking a penalty for not having insurance in 2014.

As we explained a few days ago, the open enrollment period, which started Oct. 1 and runs through March 31, effectively cut off as of Feb. 15 for anyone who wanted to avoid the penalty. Because of how the the timetable for getting into a plan works, coverage for anyone who enrolled after that date wouldn't start until April 1. And that would put them afoul of the part of the law that says that you can avoid a fine only if you have a "short coverage gap" of less than three months.

Continue Reading Below

Late yesterday, though, the government decided to reinterpret this part of the law, and now says that as long as you've enrolled by March 31, you won't face a penalty—even though in that case your coverage won't start until May 1.

But our advice to anyone who isn't insured now, or whose insurance policy is terminating at the end of the year, is to get yourself into a plan that starts Jan. 1. To do that, you'll need to enroll by Dec. 15. Going without insurance for any length of time is risky to both your health and pocketbook and coverage is never retroactive.

Let's hope this can happen. It now turns out that the problems with, which is the portal to health insurance and subsidies for residents of 36 states,  go far beyond the inability of many consumers to create accounts. People are getting inaccurate information about premium subsidies and Medicaid eligibility, and insurers are getting inaccurate information about people who've signed in, including one man recorded as having three wives (he was actually trying to sign up a wife and two kids).

Sarah Kliff, who blogs about health reform for the Washington Post, wrote a discouraging roundup of the site's woes that concluded, "the system is still pretty broken. Most people can't complete an application, and the error rates are still at levels that would cause chaos if thousands or hundreds of thousands of people were able to purchase insurance."

In more encouraging news, Ohio has now joined 24 other states plus the District of Columbia that are expanding Medicaid to cover all low income adults. It's a big state, so this means that 270,000 more uninsured residents will now get free or low-cost coverage.

Got a question for our health insurance expert? Ask it here. It helps if you include the state you live in.

— Nancy Metcalf

Health reform countdown: We are doing an article a day on the new health care law until Jan. 1, 2014, when it takes full effect. (Read the previous posts in the series.) To get health insurance advice tailored to your situation, use our Health Law Helper, below.

Copyright © 2005-2013 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.