With about seven weeks to go until open enrollment under the federal health care law ends, the Obama administration is reportedly considering letting people keep individual insurance policies for up to three years even if they don't comply with the new law.
Dan Mendelson, CEO of the Avelere Health consulting firm, set off the speculation in remarks Thursday to an Associated Press reporter. But Mendelson emphasized that no decision has been made.
"The administration is entertaining a range of options to ensure that this individual market has stability to it and that would be one thing that they could do," Mendelson said.
Joanne Peters, spokeswoman for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, confirmed that the issue was under discussion, saying: "We are continuing to examine all sorts of ways to provide consumers with more choices and to smooth the transition as we implement the law. No decisions have been made."
Also late Thursday, the Obama administration said it will temporarily allow consumers who have bought health plans on new online insurance marketplaces to switch plans if they've discovered that those plans do not include their old doctors or allow them to add new babies or spouses.
In a memo distributed Thursday night to insurers, federal health officials said that people may pick a different plan before the March 31 enrollment deadline if they are dissatisfied with the one they chose, but only if they stay with the same insurer and generally the same level of coverage.
Meanwhile, California's health insurance exchange, Covered California, for the second time since October has decided to remove the directory of physicians listed on its website after receiving complaints by consumers and doctors about errors on the site. The exchange also plans to announce Monday that it will add at least 300 more workers to its call centers and other operations to handle the numbers of consumers seeking to enroll in health plans through the exchange.
Still, uncertainty remains for many individual policyholders in California and around the U.S. who were hit with a wave of cancellation notices last year because their coverage was less robust than what is required under the law -- and many states allowed insurance companies to simply cancel them.
It became one of the most politically explosive issues in the transition to a new medical insurance system under the health law, which ultimately aims to cover millions of uninsured people. The wave of cancellation notices -- at least 4.7 million of them -- hit just when the new HealthCare.gov website was experiencing some of its worst technical problems. And it undercut the president's well-publicized promise that if you "like your plan you can keep it."
In California, about 1.1 million people received cancellation notices, according to the state Department of Insurance, though that number has fluctuated.
While Covered California's board of directors refused to back an initial Obama recommendation to allow those canceled policy holders to keep their plans for another year, his administration quietly released another exemption on Dec. 19 that applies in every state.
That health care rule change allows people whose coverage was canceled to obtain cheaper "catastrophic coverage" if they believe that the plans in the health exchanges are more expensive than their canceled health insurance policies.
Previously, catastrophic coverage under the new law had been available only to people under age 30. Such policies usually offer lower premiums but require policyholders to pay initial medical costs of up to $6,000 before comprehensive coverage kicks in.
To qualify for catastrophic coverage, consumers must submit to the federal government a hardship exemption form and documents indicating that their policy was canceled.
Covered California on Friday said that if the federal government grants an individual's waiver, the state exchange will honor it.
The reason the Obama administration may be considering adding more time to the extension is to avoid another wave of problems if rates on the exchanges climb too high and people are left without affordable coverage. Health insurers are supposed to submit by May the rates they want to charge for coverage they sell on the exchanges next year.
But it's unclear whether policyholders will find any relief if they are allowed to stay with their extended policies. Insurers in several states where extensions were allowed for 2014 have said they planned to hike the cost of those plans.
The decision to pull the list of doctors from Covered California's website, a service it had hoped would enable consumers to view all doctors available under all plans, ultimately frustrated many enrollees who selected health plans because of certain physicians and later discovered those doctors weren't actually available under those plans.
Covered California said that it will work with enrollees on a case-by-case basis to resolve any confusion created by the provider directory. And if an enrollee isn't satisfied with the outcome, Covered California said, consumers will be allowed to cancel their exchange plan and enroll in a different one by March 31.
Consumers, exchange officials said, can confirm if their doctors are part of an insurance plan by either contacting their doctors or verifying the information on insurance plan websites that are linked on the exchange website.
The Associated Press, the Washington Post and staff writer Tracy Seipel contributed to this report.