White House gives sick Americans more time to select a health plan

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration moved Thursday to help tens of thousands of sick Americans who have struggled to enroll in health coverage for next year because of problems with the rollout of new insurance marketplaces created by the president’s health law.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced that patients who have been enrolled in special insurance plans for consumers denied coverage elsewhere would be able to stay on those plans until the end of January. Nearly 86,000 people are currently in such plans.

These state-based plans – known as preexisting condition insurance plans – were created by the Affordable Care Act and were supposed to end Dec. 31 as all Americans gained access to health coverage in 2014, even if they have preexisting medical conditions.

“We don’t want these folks to experience a coverage gap,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

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Administration officials also announced Thursday that they were encouraging insurance companies to give new consumers extra time to pay their premiums so they can get coverage in January, even if they haven’t paid by the end of December.

And the administration is asking insurers to allow new consumers to keep seeing their old doctors and keep getting their old prescriptions in January even if the doctors and prescriptions are not covered under new policies.

It is unclear how many insurers will abide by the administration’s latest suggestions, though at least one major carrier, Aetna, has said it will extend its payment deadline into January.

Consumers currently must select a health plan by Dec. 23 and pay the premium by Dec. 31 in order to be guaranteed coverage Jan. 1. But there is widespread anxiety that problems with processing of new insurance applications could leave many consumers without coverage next month.

The move to extend the preexisting condition insurance plans drew quick praise Thursday from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, which had voiced concerns about interruptions in coverage.

"Extending the preexisting condition insurance plan will give tens of thousands of people with a history of cancer or another serious disease the security of knowing they will not face a costly gap in coverage,” said ACS CAN president Chris Hansen.

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