ACA coverage deadline spurs last-minute enrollment rush

Just like last-minute holiday shoppers who can expect long lines and heavy traffic the closer it gets to Christmas, consumers looking to purchase their health insurance by today's deadline in order to be insured by Jan. 1 may face similar delays.

The call centers and Healthcare.gov website for the federal insurance exchange is choked up with traffic from thousands of people in anticipation of the deadline to purchase a health plan through the Accountable Care Act, according to a National Journal report.

Americans must enroll in a health plan on the exchange by today in order for coverage to kick in Jan. 1. A high volume of callers and users on Healthcare.gov could result in short delays for some consumers who waited to the last minute to enroll, the report said.

Demand at the call centers and on the website is "unprecedented," Lori Lodes, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) told the National Journal. Consumers trying to get through to the call center today may be asked to leave their contact information so they will receive a call back. That may not happen until Wednesday when the government begins to contact callers, but they will still be able to receive coverage starting Jan. 1.

"Any con­sumer who is try­ing to get covered ahead of the dead­line for Janu­ary 1 cov­er­age--either at Health­Care.gov or the call cen­ter--will be able to do so," Lodes said in a state­ment. 

One factor encouraging enrollment is a higher penalty for eligible people who fail to sign up for insurance coverage. The fine is set to jump to $695 in 2016 or 2.5 percent of household income. Kevin Counihan, CEO of Healthcare.gov, told NPR the higher fines may get people to at least investigate the options for health insurance.

"It got people's attention," he said, referring to penalties imposed through the Massachusetts health exchange when fines approached $1,000. "And there seemed to be more of a discussion in their head about whether it made sense to pay the penalty and not get something for it."

Consumers trying to choose between insurance plans may also have an easier time this year, as CMS recently announced it implemented tools on Healthcare.gov that help people estimate their out-of-pockets costs under different plans and identify providers in the networks of specific health plans.

Open enrollment on Healthcare.gov runs through Jan. 31. The government won't offer a special enrollment period around the April 15 tax filing deadline as it has in past years, though it hopes to have 10 million people enrolled in ACA plans by the end of 2016.

To learn more:
- read the National Journal report
- read about the new sign-up tools
- check out the NPR report

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