On Obamacare rumor patrol, there’s never a dull moment

We’re starting the day on Obamacare rumor patrol.

It’s definitely a busy job.

There’s confusion about the deadline to enroll in a qualified health plan, and that’s leading to some misunderstanding.

The Affordable Care Act gives you until March 31 to sign up and avoid the lack-of-coverage penalty, formally known as the “shared responsibility payment.” But there’s a catch: You have to wait as much as 45 days for your plan to take effect. So if you sign up on March 16, for example, your plan won’t kick in until May 1. That leaves you uncovered for a month after March 31.

Some online insurance companies, bookkeepers and accountants are interpreting that to mean you face a tax of up to 1 percent of your income for not having a plan in place before the enrollment deadline. That’s why you might be seeing emails, brochures and other marketing materials from industry professionals saying that you could owe the penalty even if you sign up by the end of March.

That was true until late October, when the Obama administration quietly changed the rules after consumers reported big problems buying coverage through federal and state exchanges. Now, as long as you enroll for coverage by March 31, you won’t face a penalty, even if your plan doesn’t take effect until May.

It’s also worth noting that the Affordable Care Act allows consumers to go without coverage penalty-free for as long as three months.

But don’t expect any more breaks: That March 31 deadline is the real deal. You won’t have another chance to buy until mid-November, unless you have a “qualifying life event” that changes your household’s dependent status (such as a birth) or your work status (such as a layoff).

■ Speaking of enrollment deadlines, local retiree Irene McHone is still not sure she’s been able to sign up on time.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal first reported McHone’s story on Jan. 28, as part of a larger article on problems Nevadans are having with Nevada Health Link, the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange’s website. McHone and friend Ray Ellis had been trying since fall to buy McHone coverage through the website and call center, but to no avail. When we checked in late January, McHone had found a plan, but hadn’t been able to pay for it electronically. That meant she wasn’t technically enrolled.

Ellis updated us Wednesday on the case. He said he mailed a $101 check on Jan. 30 to the exchange’s Henderson address. The check cleared Monday, Ellis said, but it’s still unclear whether McHone is covered. She hasn’t received any insurance cards, and her broker, Pat Casale, said Tuesday that he was having trouble accessing McHone’s account through Nevada Health Link. As of Thursday, Casale said, the insurance carrier had received McHone’s application, but could not verify it had received her payment.

So despite paying for coverage, McHone spent nearly $200 out of pocket Tuesday for medications to treat her chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. McHone “dares not to schedule any doctor’s appointments because she’s not sure she has any coverage,” Ellis said.

Casale said McHone’s copay should be reimbursed once her coverage is verified. But that didn’t keep Ellis from expressing major frustration.

“I never dreamed in a million years that five months later, it still would not be accomplished,” Ellis said of signing up McHone. “She’s really panicking. You’re talking about something life-threatening. We’re past the point where we can get any angrier. It’s almost like an acceptance at this point. We were annoyed it was so inefficient, but now it hits a certain point where you wonder if they are ever going to get it done.”

■ Subpar enrollments aren’t anything a little marketing can’t fix, right?

That seems to be the approach the Obama administration is taking to boost sign-ups as deadlines loom.

Obama’s Organizing for Action, a grass-roots group designed to spur support for the president’s legislative initiatives, is putting together its “final push for health care” — a contest with a grand prize that includes a meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 25 at the group’s National Organizing Summit.

“Millions of people are already seeing the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. And millions more need to get covered before this year’s final deadline on March 31. You probably know a few folks yourself,” the group’s website says.

So it’s sending out email blasts asking for supporters willing to volunteer time online or offline “to help people get the facts.” Volunteer, as one email puts it, and you could get a “selfie” with Obama.

The Review-Journal’s political reporter, Laura Myers, told us the daily email campaign barrage resembles Obama’s get-out-the-vote effort in the final days of the 2012 presidential campaign.

It’s not the first public information blitz on behalf of the Affordable Care Act. The Associated Press reported in July that the Obama administration would spend $684 million nationwide on ads and public relations efforts to encourage people to enroll. That comes out to $228 each for the 3 million or so Americans who have chosen plans through state and federal exchanges.

■ “Young invincibles” make strides: Nevada Health Link has seen a slight uptick in its number of younger enrollees. As of Feb. 1, 27.1 percent of paid enrollees were under 35. That number was 26.8 percent on Jan. 18. Federal officials say the stat needs to be closer to 40 percent for exchanges to avoid the “death spiral” that comes from too few healthy, young enrollees and too many sicker, older ones.

■ Fun fact for your next cocktail party: Of the 22,597 Nevadans who have chosen a plan through Nevada Health Link, 66.4 percent, or 14,999 enrollees, had paid for their coverage as of Feb. 1. That’s better than in some states such as Washington, where just half have paid for coverage, but worse than a national estimate of 80 percent, according to a Monday report from Investor’s Business Daily.

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