WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Wednesday night that it will give Americans who buy health insurance through new online marketplaces an extra six weeks to obtain coverage before they risk a penalty.
The announcement means that those who buy coverage through the exchange will have until March 31 to sign up for a plan, according to an official with the Department of Health and Human Services.
Administration officials said the new deadline is unrelated to the many technical problems that the marketplace's website, HealthCare.gov, has had in its first three weeks of operation. Instead, they said, the move is designed to clear up confusion about when people would face a penalty under the 2010 health care law.
Under the law, most Americans are required to have insurance by Jan. 1, although the open enrollment period for the federal exchange and state ones runs through the end of March. The fines begin after a three-month grace period. The question has been whether people must be covered by March 31 or merely have signed up by then — because health policies typically don't start right away.
The administration made clear Wednesday night that people who buy coverage at any point during the open enrollment period will not pay a penalty.
It is the latest sign that the health care law remains a moving target, even after the federal insurance marketplace has faced myriad problems that have frustrated many people trying to sign up for coverage.
Contractors and others have begun assigning blame for the website troubles, and the fault-finding will get its most extensive public airing today, when four of the contractors involved in the project will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In the written testimony submitted to the panel in advance, CGI Federal, the main contractor on the project, takes partial blame for the site's shortcomings. But it also notes that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an agency within HHS, was the "ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance" of the site. And it blames a piece created by another contractor, Quality Software Services, or QSSI, for creating the initial bottleneck.
QSSI built part of the online registration system that crashed shortly after the Oct. 1 launch and locked out many people for days. The company counters that it was not the only one responsible for the registration system, which is now working.
"There are a number of other components to the registration system, all of which must work together seamlessly to ensure registration," said Matt Stearns, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group, the parent company for QSSI. "The QSSI-built tool has been working well for weeks."
But both contractors are likely to be taken to task by Republican and Democratic committee members. They were among the vendors who testified at a Sept. 10 Energy and Commerce Committee hearing that their parts of the project were moving along well, and that the website would be ready Oct. 1. Those assurances are likely to be questioned today.
The hearing is the first of many planned by Republicans, who are expected not only to question the contractors but also to examine the administration's management of the project. Some Republicans have called for the ouster of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is scheduled to appear before the panel.
President Barack Obama and his deputies have given no indication that they are considering replacing Sebelius. White House press secretary Jay Carney has consistently defended her, and officials have been focusing on fixing the site rather than assessing blame for its defects.
The administration, however, has sought to assure jittery business leaders and insurers that it can fix the enrollment system. On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden told business supporters in a conference call that the nation's best technology minds were working on the site and urged them to "stick with us." And on Wednesday, top Obama advisers met with insurance executives to discuss system repairs.
CMS had enormous responsibility and was charged with ensuring that there would be a mechanism for millions of Americans to easily sign up for coverage in time for some of the law's main benefits to begin Jan. 1. Officials have said ease of signing up is critical to the administration meeting its goal of getting 7 million uninsured people — many of them young and healthy — to sign up.
But the agency assumed an outsize role in the management of the project, coordinating the activities of 55 contractors rather than hiring a separate firm to serve as a systems integrator. That is likely to be a key issue during today's hearing.
There also have been inconsistencies about how and when the decision was made to scrap a key feature of the website, with QSSI telling congressional investigators that it did not know about the major change until the site's launch. But in the written testimony the company plans to deliver today, it says it found out shortly before the rollout date.
Republicans have been eager to learn more about how and when the decision was made to end that feature. The feature would have allowed people to browse plans and rates before signing up for an account. Technology experts have said the last-minute decision to stop it put too much pressure on a different tool that was set up to handle a small number of simultaneous users, crashing the site.
The decision was made at a two-day meeting in late September to which CMS invited all its major contractors. CGI gave a presentation that convinced CMS officials that the shopping feature was not ready, the Washington Post reported, citing one person familiar with the project.
A different account says that CMS believed that the feature was, in fact, ready, the Post reported, citing another person close to the project.
Republicans have alleged that the administration made the change to hide the cost of insurance plans from consumers.
"Evidence is mounting that political considerations motivated the decision," said a letter sent to two administration officials Tuesday from members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, including Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.