Amid the public frustration and administrative travails of a rollout plagued by technological shortcomings, the White House announced late Wednesday that it will delay for six weeks the imposition of fines associated with Obamacare’s individual mandate — the polarizing core provision of the administration’s signature health care reform, whereby most Americans will have to purchase federally approved health insurance or pay a penalty tax.
The Obama administration’s decision to tweak some of the individual mandate’s taxation rules appears to come in response to criticism lobbied by clients and insurers who fear that the overloaded online exchanges will keep people from signing up before open enrollment ends on March 31, 2014. The White House reportedly proposed the adjustment at a Wednesday meeting with executives from 12 major health insurance companies. According to commentators, the executives voiced concerns that many Americans will inevitably fail to enroll by the deadline, and that the insurance companies will bear the brunt of the ensuing public outrage.
“[The insurance executives are saying] you need to get this fixed, because you’re setting us up for a real fall with our customers,” a consultant told The Washington Post's Ezra Klein. “[Patients are] not going to blame Kathleen Sebelius if they walk into their doctor’s office and the doctor doesn’t know who they are. They’ll blame the insurance company. And I’m sure what the insurers are telling the White House today is we will not let you put us in that position.”
In a move the White House considered to be a clarification of taxation arcana rather than a delay, officials released a statement ensuring prospective Obamacare enrollees that no one will face penalties as long as they sign up by the end of March — regardless of the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, along with its individual mandate, become the law of the land on Jan. 1 2014. “In the Marketplaces, you have to sign up by the 15th of a given month in order for health insurance to start on the first day of the next month,” the administration wrote in the statement. "As a result, some have asked whether consumers could face a tax penalty if they don’t enroll in coverage by Feb. 15th of next year. This is not the case. If you sign up for insurance by the end of March, you will not face a penalty."
Still, it is difficult to say whether the White House’s decision to “delay” the individual mandate resulted solely from bugs in the marketplace. According to some commentators, the move helps officials preempt some of the confusion that will necessarily arise from multiple deadlines come January. In the end, the tweak may have been unavoidable.