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What to Know About the March 31 Health Insurance Deadline

Napala Pratini

As the March 31 enrollment deadline approaches to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, many consumers may be thinking, "another month, another Obamacare deadline." But this date will be a defining one for consumers without affordable health insurance, as well as for the law's critics and advocates.

The March deadline will mark the end of the open enrollment period for consumers looking to purchase health insurance plans on the federal health insurance marketplace. After March 31, Americans without health care plans will have to pay the Obamacare penalty. For the Obama administration, the enrollment numbers on that date will help to gauge the early impact of the president's signature health care law.

Things are looking up since October

Some of the biggest criticism the Obama administration has faced since the law took effect has been centered on the botched rollout of healthcare.gov. The online marketplace has been plagued with technical issues since it launched on Oct. 1, prompting outcry from both consumers and lawmakers. Users complained of outages, slow response times, error messages and system crashes.

Consumers can expect a relatively smooth experience on the site now, though the administration has admitted that issues still persist. In December, the White House completed a series of fixes that allows the site to handle up to 50,000 users at once, and the system was working 90 percent of the time, according to a Health and Human Services report.

Furthermore, about 4 million Americans have enrolled in health insurance plans through the federal and state exchanges since Oct. 1, the administration announced last week. This is a big jump from the approximately 106,000 Americans who enrolled in plans during the first month the online marketplace was open, signaling a turnaround from the earlier technical challenges with healthcare.gov and many of the state marketplace sites.

Still a long way to go

Still, the recent enrollment figures don't come close to the 7 million Americans the White House originally projected would sign up for health care before the March 31 deadline. The Congressional Budget Office recently modified the estimation to 6 million, citing the glitches in the online marketplace.

However, health care experts say there will likely be an increase in enrollment as the deadline nears, and last-minute shoppers search for plans.

Another changing deadline?

The enrollment deadline could be extended again for any number of reasons. The administration previously pushed back the deadline for those enrolling in coverage that would start on New Year's Day from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23. Then, on Dec. 23, it extended the deadline another 24 hours. It has also extended deadlines for those with pre-existing conditions, as well as the employer mandate, a key provision of the law. In this case, employers with 50 to 99 employees were granted another year before they have to offer health insurance to workers.

There's a strong suspicion among Americans that the deadline may be pushed back again. In a January poll by Bankrate, about 62 percent of more than 1,000 respondents believed the March 31 deadline would be extended. Only 29 percent said they believed it would stand.

Still, there's much confusion about what the deadline actually means. Roughly 55 percent of Americans don't know that March 31 is the cutoff date to purchase health insurance under the individual mandate provision of the law, according to the poll.

Missing the deadline

Don't be caught off guard about the consequences of missing the deadline. After March 31, consumers looking to purchase plans through the marketplace won't be able to do so until open enrollment begins again in October. If you miss the deadline, you can purchase insurance outside of the marketplace at any time -- but be aware that you won't receive any premium subsidies (think "discounts"), and you will likely be subject to a penalty for the time you were uninsured.

If you are without coverage come March 31, you may face a penalty on your 2014 tax return. The fine will be $95 per adult and $47.50 per child or 1 percent of your household income, whichever is greater. In 2015, that will increase to $325 per adult or 2 percent of income.

Napala Pratini writes for NerdWallet Health, a website that empowers consumers to find high quality, affordable health care and insurance.

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