WASHINGTON -- Here’s more fallout from the health care law: Until now, customers could walk into an insurance office or go online to buy standard health care coverage any time of year. Not anymore.
Many people who didn’t sign up during the government’s open enrollment period that ended on March 31 will soon find it difficult or impossible to get insured this year, even if they go directly to a private company and money is no object. For some it’s already too late.
With limited exceptions, insurers are refusing to sell to individuals after the enrollment period for HealthCare.gov and the state marketplaces. They will lock out the young and healthy as well as the sick or injured. Those who want to switch plans also are affected. The next wide-open chance to enroll comes in November for coverage in 2015.
It’s a little-noted consequence of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, which requires nearly all Americans to be insured or pay a fine and requires insurers to accept people with health problems.
"I have people that can buy insurance, but the companies shut them down. They won’t take the applications," insurance broker Steve Bobiak of Frackville, Pa., said. "We’re a free country. You should be able to buy anything anytime you want."
Those who act now may still be able to get in, depending on where they live.
After those extensions, eligibility for coverage during 2014 is guaranteed only for people who experience certain qualifying life events, such as losing a job that provided insurance, moving to a new state, getting married, having a baby or losing coverage under a parent’s health plan.
The federal law doesn’t prevent companies from selling policies to everyone all year. But insurers consider it too risky now that the law prohibits them from rejecting people in poor health.
"If you didn’t have an open enrollment period, you would have people who would potentially enroll when they get sick and dis-enroll when they get better," said Chris Stenrud, spokesman for insurer Kaiser Permanente. "The only insured people would be sick people, which would make insurance unaffordable for everyone."
Bobiak, whose NICA Benefits company helps people buy insurance in New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania, said he learned only a couple of weeks ago that insurers were cutting off new policies.
"It’s lousy communication out there," he said. "If we don’t know, my God, how do they expect other people to know? It’s terrible."
A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation in mid-March found that 6 out of 10 people without insurance weren’t aware of the marketplace deadline on March 31. The Obama administration, insurance companies and nonprofit groups scrambled to spread the word, often with messages that focused on the cost savings available to many people through the government marketplaces.
There wasn’t much public discussion about people who prefer to buy policies outside the marketplaces, sometimes finding better deals or options more to their liking.
Health and Human Services spokesman Aaron Albright pointed to a cryptic note on the HealthCare.gov website: It says "in some limited cases some insurance companies may sell private health plans outside the marketplace and outside open enrollment" that satisfy the law’s coverage mandate. It doesn’t say how to find any companies doing that. Albright had no further comment.
Gary Claxton, a health law expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said it’s "highly unlikely" that companies will offer such coverage after the deadline window fully closes. Some do still offer temporary plans, lasting from a month to a year. But those plans don’t cover pre-existing conditions and don’t get buyers off the hook for the law’s tax penalty.
Nate Purpura, spokesman for eHealthInsurance.com, which sells policies from 200 companies across the nation, said at this point he knows of none planning to offer major medical insurance after this month, except to people with qualifying life events.
For people trying to get an off-marketplace plan through an open enrollment extension, some insurers are selling them through April 15, and others through the end of the month. Purpura said eHealth will offer such plans in at least some areas of these states: Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington state.
Kaiser Permanente will offer extensions that mirror the state or federal marketplace in the area where a plan is sold, Stenrud said. The federal marketplace extension for online enrollment is April 15. But Oregon, for example, is giving marketplace buyers until April 30.
After that, Stenrud said, without a qualifying life event, the door closes until Nov. 15.