King calls for reprieve to help Mainers hit with Obamacare penalty

A man looks over the website. REUTERS|Mike Segar

A man looks over the website. REUTERS|Mike Segar

U.S. Sen. Angus King has asked the Obama administration to allow people hit with tax penalties for going without health insurance an extra opportunity to enroll.

With tax season upon us, some Americans are coming face to face with Obamacare’s requirement that we all get health insurance. For the first time, tax filers must note their insurance status on this year’s returns. With few exceptions, those without coverage must pay a penalty.

For 2014, the penalty amounts to either 1 percent of annual household income or $95 per adult/$47.50 per child, whichever amount is higher.

It’s too late to avoid the penalty in 2014. But some taxpayers might think, “Well fine, Uncle Sam, I’d rather not fork this money over again next year, so I’ll sign up for insurance.”

Not so fast. The window to enroll in a plan through for coverage in 2015 closed on Feb. 15. (It was already extended through Feb. 22 for people who started the enrollment process by the deadline but couldn’t finish due to technical issues. Some faced long wait times over the weekend as consumers raced to sign up.) Only people with special circumstances — such as a marriage, adoption or job loss — can sign up after that date, until the fall.

We still have two months to go before the April 15 deadline to file taxes. During that time, King expects more Americans will realize they have to pay the penalty and try sign up for insurance, only to learn they missed that other deadline to enroll.

Despite all the media coverage and political controversy over the Affordable Care Act, many remain unaware of its key provisions. More than half of uninsured Americans are unaware that financial assistance is available to make coverage more affordable, and only 17 percent knew the open enrollment period for 2015 closed on Feb. 15, according to a January poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King at his home in Brunswick  Chris Cousins|BDN

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King at his home in Brunswick. Chris Cousins|BDN

King, along with nine Democratic colleagues in the Senate, sent a letter Friday to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell asking the agency to hold an extra sign-up period.

“Such a special enrollment period would increase coverage in affordable private health insurance and reduce the costs that the uninsured pass along to the insured,” King and his colleagues wrote in the letter. “We are confident that this special enrollment period would build on the success of the law by allowing even more uninsured Americans to benefit from the health and financial security provided by the Affordable Care Act.”

An estimated two to four percent of taxpayers will face the penalty in 2014. Some no doubt deliberately made that choice, but King wants a reprieve next year for those who didn’t see the penalty coming. It gets costlier, too. For 2015, the penalty is either 2 percent of your annual household income or $325 per adult/$162.50 per child, whichever is higher.

The Obama administration is considering a special enrollment period and expected to take action this month, the New York Times reported.

Stan Dorn, a health policy expert at the Urban Institute, told the Times that while a special enrollment period would help consumers who lacked knowledge of the ACA, it also “could undermine the credibility” of the administration’s months-long insistence that Americans enroll by Feb. 15.

In Maine, more than 66,000 people selected a plan for 2015 or were automatically re-enrolled through,  according to the U.S. HHS. Nearly 90 percent of Maine enrollees qualified for a tax credit to offset the cost of their premiums. With the financial leg up, nearly eight in 10 Mainers are spending $100 or less for a plan in 2015.

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.