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ACA Dates that Matter

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Confusion about Affordable Care Act (ACA) deadlines is rampant. That's because there are lots of them and they keep changing. The fact is that some of them matter a lot more than others.

In my view, the BIG deadline is:

MARCH 31, 2014: Under the ACA, all Americans must have health insurance, and this is the latest date you can acquire it if you wish to avoid paying a penalty on your 2014 income tax. Some individuals will be exempt from penalties, including, as of last week, people whose policies were canceled because their plans' benefits did not meet new ACA standards of adequacy.

Another date that has drawn attention but, in my view, doesn't matter as much:

JANUARY 1, 2014: This is not a deadline so much as an opportunity. It is the first day, when, if you signed up in time (December 24 for the federal website, but a few states have later deadlines) -- and paid your premium in time (at the administration's urging, many insurers are allowing a grace period through January 10 for the federally run marketplaces and some states have also moved this date) -- you could enjoy the subsidized coverage available under the ACA. But if you miss these so-called deadlines, you still have until March 31 to sign up for coverage to avoid a penalty.

For the millions of Americans who are uninsured, or who could have enrolled in improved insurance through a state or federal exchange, missing these deadlines merely means you failed to make yourself better off as soon as you possibly could. BUT YOU WILL BE NO WORSE OFF THAN YOU WERE BEFORE.

There are also some dates that are consequential, but have received less attention, or have receded from the headlines:

NOVEMBER 2014: This is when the Obama administration promises online enrollment for the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) in the 34 states where the federal government is operating the small-business marketplaces for companies with fewer than 50 workers. For now, small businesses in these states can apply via paper application or an insurance broker or navigator.

Online access is available already in most of the 17 states and the District of Columbia that are operating their own SHOP exchanges.

JANUARY 1, 2015: The date by which employers with 50 or more employees will become liable for a tax penalty if they are not offering health insurance that meets minimum standards, and an employee becomes eligible for subsidized private coverage through the marketplaces.

The changing dates associated with the ACA are troubling to some, since they suggest confusion and even mismanagement by the Obama administration. It would obviously be reassuring if every declared date were honored and announced rules and intentions never changed.

On the other hand, I'm doing some long-delayed repairs in my home. The contractor said the work would be done by Thanksgiving, but there were unanticipated problems. We're hoping now for Christmas. I'll be happy if it's done by mid-January, but the key thing is whether, a year from now, I'm satisfied with the result.

Health insurance is obviously way more important to millions of Americans than any home repair project could ever be. But few things in life go exactly as planned, and it would be totally astonishing if the implementation of massive reforms to a sector accounting for 20 percent of our economy rolled out without a bump or a detour. We should keep that in mind as we think about those changing ACA deadlines.