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December 18. 2013 7:26PM

Insurers extend health-care coverage deadline

The nation's health insurance industry volunteered on Wednesday to extend the deadline until Jan. 10 for Americans to pay for coverage beginning Jan. 1 under new federal and state insurance marketplaces.

The extension does not affect when people must sign up for coverage — by Dec. 23 — but creates a small buffer zone for consumers and insurers alike to cope with what may be a last-minute rush of people choosing health plans after a rocky enrollment period that began 2 1/2 months ago.

The decision, by the board of directors of the industry's main trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans, goes beyond a directive last week by the Obama administration that insurers participating in the new exchanges allow the new insurance to begin on New Year's Day as long as they pay by Dec. 31.

Under the rules for the new insurance, the payment date is significant, because once consumers enroll through the new federal online marketplace, HealthCare.gov, or through other means, their coverage does not begin until they have paid the first month of their insurance premium. That has meant that, until now, insurers had a tight time frame to send out a bill and collect payments from tens of thousands of new customers signing up as the Dec. 23 deadline nears.

"Our community is taking an important step to give consumers greater peace of mind about their health care coverage," AHIP president Karen Ignagni said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

The board's decision does not compel every health plan that is being sold in the new marketplaces to extend the payment deadline, leaving the decision up to each one. But all major insurers have agreed to go along.
The group's decision does not address several other kinds of flexibility that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last week asked insurers to provide. Those would include allowing Americans who sign up into January to get coverage retroactive to the start of the month, and letting people stay on their current medicines — and in some instance keep their doctors — at no extra cost for the first month even if they are not included under their new health plans.


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