WASHINGTON — It's crunch time to sign up for coverage under President Barack Obama's health care law. The website works much better now, but rising premiums and shaken faith among insurers have cast new shadows.
Today is the deadline for millions of uninsured procrastinators to sign up in time for coverage to begin Jan. 1. As the health insurance expansion enters its third year, their decisions are critical to its economic viability. A surge of younger, healthier customers could hold down premiums in a market that's struggling to grow.
"Medical costs of enrollees have been higher than expected and total enrollment remains low," said Caroline Pearson, a vice president at the consulting firm Avalere Health. "If participation is leveling off, then plans may be stuck with a risk pool that is not particularly balanced."
The Obama administration says it's seeing a vigorous consumer response this signup season, with more than 1 million new customers already.
Some important things for consumers thinking about signing up for the first time, as well as for those renewing:
• Deadlines: Today is the deadline to sign up for coverage so it can take effect on the first of the year. It's also the deadline to make any changes to existing coverage so they take effect Jan. 1. Current customers will be automatically renewed Jan. 1 if they make no changes.
The final deadline for new signups and plan switches is Jan. 31.
• Fines will sting: The fines for people who remain uninsured in 2016 have gone up substantially. A study from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that the average tax penalty will rise to $969 per household, or nearly 50 percent.
• Website working: The HealthCare.gov website, famously balky a couple of years ago, is working well by most accounts. The site has some consumer-friendly enhancements including a cost calculator, a doctor and hospital lookup feature, and a way to see whether your prescription drugs are covered.