Obamacare: When is the deadline – and why is it important?

Today is the end of the six-month sign-up period for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, the signature legislative achievement of President Barack Obama's first term

US Editor

It's the final countdown today for procrastinators in the United States looking for coverage under President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law but who haven’t summoned the courage to go online and navigate the government’s famously cranky website to choose and hopefully purchase a policy.

The deadline for Americans to get themselves covered – or face a modest financial penalty – finally arrives at midnight tonight, four years after the Affordable Care Act was passed by Congress and six months after the online exchanges were introduced. A little more time will be given to people facing unusual circumstances, for instance having a baby, or for those who go online before midnight but get stuck.

There may be quite a few in the latter group. Even after months of rushing to fix the federal Obamacare website after its disastrous roll-out last October, it still crashed yesterday. The site was down for at least four hours this morning amid an eleventh-hour surge of interest from consumers. Officials said that the site received two million visitors a day at the weekend.

Even so, the scorecard for the White House is looking better than it might have. Late last week, it said six million Americans had signed up for coverage, shy of the original target of seven million for this first year with the new system. Given the rush of sign-ups today and over the weekend, that higher target might yet just be met.

Supporters of the law concede, however, that that overall tally conceals all kinds of regional variations and unanswered questions. The 14 states that chose to set up online exchanges of their own have had wildly different experiences, for example. While Connecticut has signed up about half the available pool of consumers, the level in states like Oregon has been puny.

Nor is it clear if all those who have signed up have actually taken the vital last step of paying their premiums or what proportion of those participating did not have coverage before. The original aim of the law, after all, is to help the roughly 50 million Americans who don’t have health insurance to access it while at the same time lowering the cost of insurance policies and treatment.

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