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Initial Deadline Arrives For 2016 Marketplace Coverage

Andy Marso
Heartland Health Monitor
Topeka resident Tim Reed, left, works with Destiny Bounds, a Washburn University School of Law student, on his 2014 income tax filing so Reed can purchase health insurance from healthcare.gov.

Today is the deadline to sign up on the federal marketplace for health insurance coverage that will start Jan. 1, 2016.

Officials with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are urging Americans to get signed up in order to avoid tax penalties for not carrying insurance.

“This deadline is important because we know most people want their new policy to start on January 1,” Julie Brookhart, a regional spokeswoman for CMS, said in an email. “During last year’s open enrollment, we saw the biggest surge of sign-ups in the days before the deadline.”

Brookhart said eight in 10 people eligible for marketplace coverage receive subsidies to reduce monthly premiums. The government is encouraging those who had coverage this year through the marketplace to comparison shop on healthcare.gov if their plan costs are increasing.

The annual fee for not carrying insurance in 2016 will rise to $695 per adult and $347.50 per child, or 2.5 percent of annual income, whichever is higher.

Because Americans can’t sign up on healthcare.gov if they haven’t filed an income tax return, students and faculty from Washburn University School of Law in Topeka hosted a free clinic Monday to help people get their taxes done.

“You cannot reapply unless your 2014 taxes are filed,” Washburn Law professor Lori McMillan said. “This is one of those things that was not super well-communicated, so we’re here to do that last little push to help anyone who needs to have their taxes filed.”

In a corner of the commons room at the law school, Washburn Law student Destiny Bounds helped Topeka resident Tim Reed compile the initial information he would need to file his 2014 return.

Reed said he came to the clinic after hearing about it on the news.

“I’m just glad I saw it,” Reed said.

Brock Roehler is president of Washburn’s Tax and Estate Planning Association, which runs the volunteer program that provides free tax preparation for low-income individuals every year.

He and McMillan said there were a number of reasons Kansans might not have filed a tax return by the April 15 deadline. Some people don’t owe income taxes and don’t expect a refund, for instance. But if they want to purchase insurance on healthcare.gov and take advantage of the federal subsidies, they still must file a return.

“There are certain (income) thresholds that you’re not required to file, and it’s different based on filing status,” Roehler said. “But in all aspects it’s really, really, really low. Not a lot of people are exempt.”

Still, Roehler and McMillan said their volunteers were able to help a couple of people who came in Monday.

The low turnout may have been fortunate because the healthcare.gov website appeared to be overworked and overloaded.

“We still have one open because we spent an incredible amount of time and effort this morning and this afternoon on healthcare.gov trying to get their 1095-A, which is the tax form that needs to be sent out by the IRS that gives the information on what their premiums are and what their tax credits are,” McMillan said. “We were locked out of healthcare.gov. When we did get in, it froze us and basically queued us up and said, ‘We’ve got a lot of traffic.’”

According to Brookhart, as of Monday 2.8 million Americans had signed up since open enrollment began Nov. 1 for 2016 coverage. That’s far below the 11.7 million who signed up during last year’s open enrollment, which stretched into February, suggesting millions may have waited until the last few days before the deadline.

Brookhart said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will have experts available to chat via Facebook at starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday as the deadline for coverage starting Jan. 1, 2016, approaches.

Those who fail to secure coverage before that deadline should not give up. They still can sign up for coverage that starts later in the year. The tax penalty for not carrying insurance is prorated, and there’s an exemption to the penalty for those who go without coverage for two consecutive months or less.

The marketplaces were established as part of the Affordable Care Act, which required most Americans to have health insurance as of 2014.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
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