02/12/2014 07:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Will Obama Slip Obamacare Mandate Deadline One Month?

MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

The official numbers are in for January, showing that Obamacare signups beat the monthly projection for the first time. This is good news for the White House, as is the new overall signup total of 3.3 million. After a very rocky rollout, the Obamacare website seems to now be back on track. The numbers are good, but they will likely fall short of the overall goal of 7 million signed up by the deadline, currently set for the end of March. This will leave the White House with a rather obvious path to make up the difference: slip the individual mandate deadline by one month, to the end of April. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Obama chooses this route, likely in the middle of next month.

The rationale for doing so is clear. Here's an early draft of what Obama will likely say, if he does announce such a change:

The Affordable Care Act has already allowed millions of Americans to sign up for health insurance, many of them for the first time. When the Congressional Budget Office did their initial projections, they estimated that seven million people would sign up in the new individual marketplaces during the first open enrollment period, from October of last year through the end of March. But, as you all know, for the first two months of that six-month period, the website had a few small problems. [Pause for laughter.] OK, OK, it had more than just a few problems -- it barely worked. Since we fixed it, however, the projections have been pretty accurate for the number of people who are signing up. The problem is, we lost those first two months -- which was a whopping one third of the total time period. Therefore, to allow everyone a chance to participate, we're moving the deadline for individuals to sign up for health coverage back one month, to the end of April. This will assure that Americans get every possible chance to get insured. We are pretty confident that we can meet the original target of 7 million people by the end of April, and I encourage everyone who has not yet signed up to visit their state's marketplace or the site -- and to do so as soon as possible.

Obama has already been slipping deadlines in Obamacare for other groups. However, the numbers for individual signups have been good enough (since the site started working) that he won't need to slip this deadline for an entire year, as Republicans tried to force him to do during the government shutdown fight. Over 1.1 million people signed up in January, it was announced today, which beat the C.B.O. projection by over 100,000 people. But the total number signed up overall is roughly 1 million shy of where the C.B.O. thought it would be at this point. February's numbers will likely be equivalent to January's, and then there will be a large "last-minute" surge of procrastinators in March. This likely will mean a total of only around 6 million signed up. But if you add in another month like January to that total, it reaches the projected 7 million.

This is a pretty easy fix, and my guess is that it'll be too tempting for the White House to pass up. They've already essentially slipped this deadline once before, after all. This was due to the strange nature of health insurance, which (unlike, say, car insurance) does not start when you make your first payment. Health insurance only starts on the first of the following month. The law was written stating that you had to have insurance by the end of March. But this meant you would have had to sign up for insurance before March began, meaning the actual deadline was something like the middle of February -- enough time for the payment to be processed and the insurance to kick in. This was quietly changed to "signed up by the end of March" rather than "insured by the end of March," which essentially added a month and a half to the deadline. Since there is a large segment of Americans who procrastinate until the last minute to do things, adding another month will ease the pressure on these latecomers.

Everyone knows that the initial rollout in October and November was a complete disaster, which wasted one third of the amount of time available. President Obama has already taken political hits for the other deadline delays he has announced, and he knows that Republicans are teeing the Obamacare issue up as the centerpiece of their campaigns for the midterm elections. Democrats will have an easier time of things if they can point to 7 million people signed up -- just as projected -- during the campaign season.

Of course, Obama doesn't want the numbers to sag in March, so he'll wait until the middle of the month to make this announcement -- say, around Saint Patrick's Day. Now that the White House can be confident that a million people are signing up per month (even without a deadline looming), adding in that extra month to the schedule is going to prove too irresistible to pass up. The math is simple: a total of 3.3 million in January, 4.4 million by the end of February, 5.5 million in March, and then a big wave (equal to December's) to finish up in April and meet the target.

Making this change will give Democrats the opportunity to look beyond the disastrous rollout of the website. By the time people vote in November, that story is going to be over a year old, after all. If Democrats can say, "Even against all odds, we met the target set for Obamacare signups," that will refocus the debate considerably. They'll be able to point out that Obamacare has been up and running for a whole year, and that the sky still has not fallen in all the many ways Republicans had confidently predicted it would. Democrats will be running on how to improve the law, and Republicans will still be grousing about computer problems that were fixed a year ago. President Obama may take a small political hit for slipping the deadline a month, but he's already taken multiple hits on deadline slips already, so this one won't hurt all that much -- and it won't hurt other Democrats at all.

It's really hard to see much of a downside, which is why I'm boldly making the prediction today: when we all wake up from Paddy's Day hangovers, Obamacare's individual mandate deadline (the date you must be insured by, to avoid paying a penalty on your taxes) will have slipped to the end of April.


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