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For some Obamacare shoppers, a brief grace period on premiums

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October
A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October

By Caroline Humer and Lewis Krauskopf

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As a deadline approaches for people to sign up for medical insurance under President Barack Obama's healthcare law, some insurers and state-run online marketplaces are giving shoppers an extra week to pay their first premiums.

The shift to early January from the end of December provides a short grace period for insurers and shoppers to work through any errors in the new policies caused by technology problems dogging enrollment since it opened on October 1.

Industry consultants say the payment extensions could pick up pace across the United States before the December 23 deadline to sign up for insurance that takes effect on January 1. The Obama administration could face a new crisis over the healthcare law should a significant number of consumers discover that their preferred insurer does not have a record of their new policy.

Aetna Inc, which is selling health insurance on exchanges, or marketplaces, in more than a dozen states, will allow consumers to pay premiums as late as January 8. The Connecticut exchange, Access Health CT, said some shoppers can pay as late as January 7. The Vermont exchange and Covered California have announced similar extensions while Maryland requires payment by January 15.

Cristine Vogel, a Navigant Consulting associate director who has health insurers and providers as clients, said that the grace period is a way for insurers to keep their members at a time when confusion about coverage is expected.

"Once one of the larger plans come out and say that, then all of the plans will probably follow," Vogel said.

Some of these stop-gap plans for payment followed the government's decision to move the sign-up deadline for January benefits to December 23 from December 15, leaving less time for insurers to receive and process details on new members. Insurers and exchanges had planned on payment being made by December 31.

The extra week also gives Aetna and others time to sort out who has signed up through the online exchanges that were established by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, to extend medical insurance to millions more people.

Technical problems on the federal HealthCare.gov website for 36 states and several of the 14 state-run exchanges has hampered sign-ups. On Wednesday, the government said 365,000 people enrolled in October and November, but insurers expect enrollment to increase in the next two weeks, adding to technology problems.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that the government is relying on manual back-up systems to correct computer errors that could leave some enrollees uninsured.

RACE AGAINST TIME

For people who sign up late in December, it is still not clear that insurers will have enough time to verify their information, send out enrollment kits, receive payment and send insurance cards.

UnitedHealth Group said that it requires payment before January 1. Health Care Service Corp, which runs Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in 5 states, also requires payment beforehand. Cigna has added a team trained to resolve issues for new enrollees after January 1.

Aetna said that it is still having issues collecting data from HealthCare.gov. Spokeswoman Cynthia Michener said that it reports problems to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs the site, and seeks the information from the agency.

If an individual calls to confirm enrollment and it has no record of that person, the company also contacts CMS to reconcile the information. Aetna sends consumers a letter when their information is received.

Members who do not receive ID cards in the mail soon enough can find an image of their ID card on the Aetna mobile site or print out a temporary ID card, Michener said.

In Connecticut, Access Health CT Chief Executive Kevin Counihan said it plans to load the consumer's data, known as 834 files, onto a server immediately after December 23 so insurers can access those files promptly. He said he has been preparing for a tripling of volume in December.

Molina Healthcare Co, a Medicaid provider that is offering plans in nine states, is keeping expectations low about exactly how much is done by January.

"I don't expect the data to be perfect. What I want is to have the information in the database in some form, so that if they go for services and somebody queries our database, they show up," Chief Executive Officer J. Mario Molina said.

(Editing by Michele Gershberg and Grant McCool)

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