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Rhode Island extends state Obamacare sign-up deadline

Specialists help callers and potential customers find health insurance at a customer contact and call center for HealthSource RI, Rhode Island's health insurance exchange program for the Affordable Care Act or "ObamaCare," in Providence, Rhode Island October 25, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

(Reuters) - Rhode Island's new insurance marketplace said on Tuesday it will extend its deadline until the end of the year for consumers to sign up for private coverage plans under President Barack Obama's healthcare law and still get benefits on January 1.

The HealthSource RI marketplace will let individuals who select a plan by December 31 and pay by January 6 to be considered covered on Jan 1. Previously, the deadline to sign up was December 23 nationwide. But Rhode Island was one of the first to extend the deadline ahead of an expected crush of enrollment.

"This was done to give Rhode Islanders who want health care coverage to begin on January 1 more time to shop for the plan that's right for them, and to get enrolled," Dara Chadwick, a spokeswoman for HealthSource RI, said in an email.

The Obama administration is overseeing the federal HealthCare.gov enrollment site for residents of 36 states. The remaining 14 states, including Rhode Island, are operating their own exchanges and have flexibility to set their own rules. Other state marketplaces have said they will give consumers an extra week or two to pay their first premiums.

But technical problems that have dogged HealthCare.gov and some of the state marketplace websites have raised fears that a substantial number of consumers who need coverage come January 1 won't be able to complete their enrollment in time.

Last month, the federal government pushed back the deadline to sign up for January coverage via HealthCare.gov to December 23 from December 15. Last week, the government also urged insurers to allow people who sign up after the deadline to still get coverage retroactive to Jan 1.

Maryland's state-run exchange said on Monday that it and insurer CareFirst agreed to allow consumers until December 27 to sign up for a CareFirst plan and have coverage as of January 1, and the exchange was discussing such an extension with other carriers as well.

Regulation tied to the healthcare reform law also allows for a special enrollment period for consumers who cannot sign up due to a problem with the marketplace, or other reasons.

"They are encouraging plans to accept later enrollments, but requiring it of all plans is a big lift and seems unlikely," said Caroline Pearson, vice president at advisory firm Avalere Health. Rhode Island "may have worked directly with the limited number of plans in the state to get agreement on this. The feds wouldn't be able to do that with plans nationwide."

(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Jan Paschal)