By Caroline Humer
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Some top U.S. health insurers are giving consumers more time to pay their Obamacare premiums, extending the deadline to the end of January for benefits that begin retroactively from January 1.
The new extension adds to a series of deadline delays by government and the insurance industry to compensate for technical failures and errors plaguing the enrollment process under President Barack Obama's healthcare law.
The Obama administration and insurers have been working to prevent cases where problems in setting up new policies meant a consumer who thought they had insurance would not have benefits when they needed them. Republican opponents of the law have seized on its troubled rollout as a top issue for 2014 congressional elections.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois and three more BCBS plans that are part of the privately held Health Care Service Corp chain have moved the first payment deadline to January 30 from January 10. All of the plans are sold through the federal website HealthCare.gov, which had a December 24 deadline for customers to enroll and be guaranteed coverage by January 1 in 36 states.
Others, including Aetna Inc, said they were still considering this Friday to be the payment deadline.
Technical problems prevented consumer access to HealthCare.gov in the first two months following its launch on October 1. An emergency effort to fix the site allowed hundreds of thousands of people to use it daily by early December, and the Obama administration urged insurers to give consumers leeway to sort through any remaining errors. America's Health Insurance Plans, a top industry trade and lobbying group, recommended a first payment deadline of January 10.
By late December, more than 2 million people nationwide had picked new private insurance plans under Obamacare, but the number included consumers who have yet to pay their first premium and therefore are not truly enrolled.
Insurers say they have been communicating to customers through social media, targeted emails and telephone calls to let them know they need to pay.
"We have been receiving a significant volume of payments and continue to assist members in activating their coverage. But some signed up close to the deadline, so we are extending the payment deadline to give customers extra time to pay their first month's premium," Lauren Perlstein Plungas, a spokeswoman for Health Care Service Corp, said in a statement.
Independence Blue Cross Blue Shield, based in Philadelphia, is also moving its time frame to pay, until January 28, a spokeswoman said. Independence is selling its plans for Pennsylvania on HealthCare.gov.
WellPoint Inc, which operates Blue Cross Blue Shield in 14 states and is known for its Anthem and Empire brands, said that its first payment deadline is now January 15. WellPoint is selling plans on HealthCare.gov and on some of the 14 exchanges run by states. It had previously set a January 10 deadline.
The state-run Covered California exchange announced this past weekend that it was moving the payment date for insurance plans to January 15 from a previous deadline of January 6, saying that its extension was aimed at easing the rush by consumers to pay their invoices.
In Connecticut, the three insurers selling Obamacare plans have established three different deadlines for January 1 coverage: January 10, 15 and 17, the head of the state's Access Health exchange Kevin Counihan said on Wednesday. In addition, the deadline for February 1 coverage is also January 15.
"This is all just part of everyone's scrambling to meet some of the administrative complexities of implementation and enrollment," Counihan said. "Part of the challenge is that there are so many dates out there that consumers have the risk of being confused."
(The fourth paragraph of this story has been corrected to show Health Care Service Corp deadline is January 30, not January 31)
(Reporting by Caroline Humer; editing by Michele Gershberg, Stephen Powell and Richard Chang)