insurance

Do you know the Obamacare penalty deadline?

Do you know the deadline to sign up for health insurance and thus avoid a tax penalty under the Affordable Care Act? And, considering the well-publicized delays to previous big Obamacare dates on the calendar, would you expect that deadline to stand?

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Bankrate's latest Health Insurance Pulse survey shows that fewer than half (45 percent) of all respondents correctly identified the March 31 cutoff to purchase insurance under health reform's "individual mandate" provision.

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Level of awareness surprises experts

"That's a surprisingly high number, given people's normal complete inattentiveness to public affairs," says Mark Schlesinger, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

"Normally, only people whose lives are touched are going to pay attention to this type of thing. Given that (Obamacare) directly affects on the order of 10 to 15 percent of the public, the fact that 45 percent actually knew the deadline is a remarkably big number because it's not driven by how it's going to affect them personally," he says.

Other options in the multiple-choice question included Jan. 1 of this year (chosen by 24 percent) and Dec. 31, 2014 (11 percent).

The robust number of in-the-know respondents took Gerald Kominski, director of UCLA's Center for Health Policy Research, by surprise as well.

"As a measure of general awareness, I think that's actually a high number," he says. "There has been so much confusion about the details of the law, up to and including whether it's actually been repealed or not. Data show there's a core group of about 25 percent of Americans who believe that the law has been repealed because one house of Congress has voted 44 times to repeal it. They've forgotten that that's not the way laws get passed or repealed in the United States."

Most think March 31 deadline will change

Greater public confusion may have been expected over the March 31 individual mandate deadline, in light of the extensions and adjustments made by the Obama administration in the months leading up to and following the launch of the Affordable Care Act's chief consumer interface, the online health exchanges.

Given Obamacare's delay-plagued debut, 62 percent of survey respondents expect the March 31 individual mandate deadline to be pushed back, while only 29 percent expect it to stand.

"They've seen that with a lot of the other deadlines, so it's not unreasonable for them to construct a model that says this is going to take a little longer to fall into place than anyone thought," Schlesinger says.

Highlights:

  • 43 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 knew the correct deadline.
  • 48 percent of individuals earning $75,000 or more knew the right answer, compared with 40 percent of those earning less than $30,000.
  • 54 percent of college graduates chose the correct deadline, versus 40 percent with a high school education or less.

Highlights:

  • 36 percent of individuals earning less than $30,000 a year said the government would stick to the deadline, compared with only 24 percent of those earning $75,000 or more.
  • 49 percent of respondents identifying as Democrats said the government would push back the deadline, while 72 percent of Republicans felt that way.
  • 66 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 expect the deadline to change, compared with around 60 percent for other age groups.

Editor's note: Percentages may not equal 100, due to rounding.

Both the "employer mandate," which requires large companies to provide affordable health insurance coverage to their workers, and the Small Business Health Insurance Program, the "SHOP" online exchange for smaller companies, were postponed a year to 2015 in order to focus resources on the state exchanges.

When the exchanges went live Oct. 1, consumer traffic quickly swamped HealthCare.gov, the default site for 36 states, forcing the feds to close it for retooling and delay the deadline to enroll in individual coverage effective Jan. 1 from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23 and then Christmas Eve. The administration also granted an additional year to those who had received cancellation notices from their insurers to obtain new coverage.

A comparison to Medicare's early days

Kominski says the complexity of Obamacare, which faces the daunting task of integrating federal, state and private insurers via a real-time exchange, far exceeds the last great U.S. public health milestone: the 1965 introduction of Medicare.

"Medicare was rolled out a year after enactment, but it wasn't a choice people needed to make; the only choice was to accept it, and there was no reason to turn it down," he says. "In our lifetime, this is the biggest health expansion that requires people to make a choice."

Because of the challenges with implementing the Affordable Care Act, would people view another deadline delay positively or negatively? Tough to say, says Schlesinger.

"They may be saying, 'Look, why should we pay attention to a deadline that's not a hard deadline?' Or they may be saying, 'Look, the federal government kind of gets the fact that this has been harder than anyone expected, so they're going to push us in the right direction, but they're not necessarily going to slap our hands,'" he says.

So, another delay? Don't count on it

But Kominski predicts the "wishful thinking" of the Obamacare deadline skeptics may not come to pass this time.

"There's a practical issue that, if you keep delaying, it creates the expectation that this is never really going to go fully into effect," he says. "The problems with HealthCare.gov appear to have been resolved pretty successfully, given the surge in enrollment. I understand why 62 percent expected it to be pushed back, but I don't think that that sentiment is a predictor of what's going to happen."

Bankrate's sixth monthly Health Insurance Pulse survey was conducted Jan. 16-19 by Princeton Survey Research Associates International with a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults living in the continental United States. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percent.

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