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Can Obamacare Handle Last-Minute Enrollments?

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Thanks to the repairs to, most people who want to buy insurance through the federal website can. But it remains to be see whether the system can handle the inevitable, last-minute surge of customers—or whether the administration and insurers will be able to fix mistakes in applications filed in October and November, when the system was transmitting error-prone data to carriers. These and other “January 1” problems have been worrying a lot of health care advocates. They would have been an issue even if had launched smoothly on October 1. The problems and delays make difficulties more likely.

On Thursday, the Administration announced a series of steps designed to guarantee people can keep getting their medical care, even if there are problems with their enrollment. Among the steps: Extending the availability of high-risk insurance pools and asking insurers to establish a grace period of sorts, during which they will continue to pay bills starting on January 1 even for people who haven’t submitted that first premium payment or whose enrollment data has problems. You can read a full list of the steps in the document below.

Whether these steps will actually make a difference is another question. If you read through the administration’s fact sheet, you’ll see the phrases “strongly urging” and “strongly encouraging” in several places. In other words, compliance seems to be voluntary. On the other hand, insurers may be doing many of these things already.

It’s not clear how necessary these steps are, because we really don’t know how many people will have trouble because they didn’t pay a premium or because technological problems made it difficult for them to enroll. But the possibility of problems, some of them widespread, is very real. In October, the administration failed to plan for the worst—and then the worst happened. This time, at least, they seem to be thinking through all of the possibilities.