Without any public announcement, Obama administration officials have changed the rules so that people will have an extra day to sign up through the new federal health insurance exchange for health plans that begin Jan. 1.
Over the weekend, government officials and outside IT contractors working on the online marketplace's computer system made a software change that automatically gives people a Jan. 1 start date for their coverage as long as they enroll by 11:59 p.m. Christmas Eve.
The official deadline had been midnight Monday.
The switch is the most recent rule change — some by government officials, and at least one by the insurance industry — as a milestone approaches for what has been a tumultuous three-month start of the long-awaited opportunity for Americans to buy new health plans under a 2010 law intended to reshape the nation's health-care system.
For the first two months of the sign-up, a federal Web site, HealthCare.gov, had so many software and hardware defects that many consumers who wanted to select insurance were frustrated by error messages. And administration officials held off on a planned campaign to urge people to take advantage of the opportunity for new insurance.
At the start of this month, Obama administration officials announced that the Web site was largely working smoothly and began to urge consumers to sign up for coverage before the Dec. 23 deadline. The full open-enrollment period extends through the end of March, but the first deadline is for people who want coverage to start on New Year's Day — the date it becomes available.
The change means that anyone who completes an enrollment by the end of today can get coverage starting Jan. 1, even if they do not begin an application until today.
An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said computer systems had been programmed to accept consumers who try to enroll through Christmas Eve, "proactively recognizing that we need to be prepared to handle heavy online traffic or other technical issues."
In recent days, insurance industry leaders have protested other 11th-hour rule changes by the administration. They include a decision late last week by the Department of Health and Human Services to offer an exemption from a requirement that most Americans have insurance as of Jan. 1. The exemption applies to people whose health plans are being canceled because the policies failed to meet new federal benefits standards.
On Monday morning, one insurance industry official, informed by The Washington Post about the quiet deadline extension, criticized the move. "Making yet another last-minute change to the rules by shortening an already-tight time period in which to process enrollments makes it even harder to ensure people who have selected a plan are able to have their coverage begin in January," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this month asked insurers participating in the federal marketplace to grant several kinds of flexibility to customers — including allowing them to sign up for health plans in January and make the coverage retroactive to New Year's Day. Many insurers have refused to go along. But the insurance industry's main trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans, last week made its own policy change, saying that anyone who signed up by Dec. 23 would be given until Jan. 10 to pay their first month's insurance premium.
Beyond the unannounced extension through Christmas Eve, senior administration officials have pointed out during the past two weeks that rules under the law allow a "special enrollment period" for customers who tried and failed to meet the regular deadline.