WASHINGTON - You'll have to get coverage by Valentine's Day or thereabouts to avoid penalties for being uninsured, the Obama administration confirmed Wednesday.
That's about six weeks earlier than a March 31 deadline often cited previously.
The explanation: health insurance coverage typically starts on the first day of a given month, and it takes up to 15 days to process applications.
You still have to be covered by March 31 to avoid the new penalties for remaining uninsured. But to successfully accomplish that you have to send in your application by the middle of February. Coverage would then start on Mar. 1.
The Jackson Hewitt tax preparation company first pointed out the wrinkle with the health care law's least popular requirement.
An administration official confirmed it. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and insisted on anonymity.
It's the latest bit of confusion involving complex requirements of President Barack Obama's health care law, known as the Affordable Care Act.
Adjustments to the law have ranged from the momentous to the mundane. The biggest one was a one-year delay of a requirement that larger employers offer coverage, announced this summer. More recently, the administration has postponed some Spanish-language capabilities of its enrollment website, as well as full functionality on the site small businesses use to sign up.
Brian Haile, senior vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt, said government agencies initially had different interpretations of the enrollment deadline. The Health and Human Services department, which is taking the lead in implementing the law, kept referring to a March 31 deadline. But the Internal Revenue Service, which handles most of the financial aspects, suggested that the deadline had to be in February.
"There were inconsistencies," said Haile, adding it took several inquiries by Jackson Hewitt over the last few weeks to clear up the uncertainty.
The health care law was designed to cover the uninsured through a mix of government-subsidized private insurance and a major expansion of the Medicaid safety net program.
The rollout of online insurance markets this month has been snarled by technical glitches that frustrated many consumers. Meanwhile, House Republicans are still pressing their demand for a delay of "Obamacare" provisions, if not its total repeal, as a condition for lifting the partial government shutdown now in its second week.
Starting next year, the law requires virtually all Americans to have insurance or face a tax penalty, triggered after a coverage gap of three months. The penalty starts as low as $95 for 2014, but escalates in subsequent years. There are exemptions for financial hardship and other defined circumstances.
The purpose of the penalty is to nudge as many people as possible into the insurance pool. That would help keep premiums in check, since the law also forbids insurers from turning away people with health problems.
Haile said an earlier enrollment deadline around Valentine's Day may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the administration, because it creates a natural opportunity to market to young, healthy people, whose premiums are needed to offset medical costs of older generations.
"When thinking about how to attract young people, a Valentine's Day message may be very salient," he said.
The administration says the deadline is actually Feb. 15, the day after Valentine's Day.
That's close enough that the government might be able to make the pitch work.