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People buying health insurance through the new U.S. online marketplaces will have six more weeks to comply before getting fined, the Obama administration said.
The adjustment, first suggested by NBC News and later confirmed by The Washington Post, makes clear those signing up through the exchange can buy coverage right through March 31 without facing an individual-mandate tax penalty, even if their coverage doesn't start till later, the Department of Health and Human Services said.
A health plan purchased March 31 would likely start May 1, given that insurance plans typically start the first of the month and carriers usually require applications submitted no later than 10 days to two before a given month starts.
The law originally suggested people had to be covered by March 31, not just purchase the coverage by that date, the White House said, which meant shoppers would have had to buy their plans by mid-February to avoid the fine.
Administration officials told the Post the adjusted deadline was simply to clear up confusion and had nothing to do with the many technical problems plaguing the federal HealthCare.gov website since it went live Oct. 1.
The federal website -- for residents of the 36 states that chose not to create their own state healthcare exchanges -- has been marred by serious technological problems from its debut, making it difficult for individuals and small businesses to sign up for health insurance.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to look into those malfunctions and misfires starting at 9 a.m. Thursday in a hearing titled "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Implementation Failures: Didn't Know or Didn't Disclose?"
An executive for the main website contractor said in written testimony submitted to the panel in advance the firm accepted partial blame for the site's shortcomings.
But Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal Inc., the U.S. division of Canadian company CGI Group Inc., said a Department of Health and Human Services agency called the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was the "ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance" of the site.
She also blamed user-verification software produced by another contractor, Quality Software Services Inc., for creating "a bottleneck that prevented the vast majority of users from accessing" the exchange.
QSSI parent UnitedHealth Group Inc. responded with a counter-statement.
"There are a number of other components to the registration system, all of which must work together seamlessly to ensure registration," the statement said. "The [QSSI-built] tool has been working well for weeks."
CGI Federal and QSSI were among the vendors whose executives told the committee Sept. 10 everything was going smoothly and the website would be ready Oct. 1.