WASHINGTON -- You'll have to get coverage by Valentine's Day or thereabouts to avoid penalties for being uninsured, the Obama administration confirmed Wednesday.
That's about six weeks earlier than a March 31 deadline often cited previously.
The explanation: health insurance coverage typically starts on the first day of a given month, and it takes up to 15 days to process applications.
You still have to be covered by March 31 to avoid penalties for those remaining uninsured. But to successfully accomplish that you have to send in your application by the middle of February. Coverage would start Mar. 1.
The Jackson Hewitt tax preparation company first pointed out the wrinkle with the health care law's least popular requirement.
An administration official confirmed it. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
It's the latest tweak involving complex requirements of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law. The Affordable Care Act aims to cover the uninsured through a mix of government-subsidized private insurance and a major expansion of the Medicaid safety net program.
The rollout of online insurance markets this month has been snarled by technical glitches that frustrated many consumers. Meanwhile, House Republicans are still pressing their demand for a delay of "Obamacare" provisions, if not its total repeal, as a condition for lifting the partial government shutdown now in its second week.
Starting next year, the health care law requires virtually all Americans to have insurance or face a tax penalty, triggered after a coverage gap of three months. The penalty starts as low as $95 for 2014, but escalates in subsequent years. There are exemptions for financial hardship and other defined circumstances.
The purpose of the penalty is to nudge as many people as possible into the insurance pool. That would help keep premiums in check, since the law also forbids insurers from turning away people with health problems.
Brian Haile, senior vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt, said an earlier deadline around Valentine's Day may even be a blessing in disguise for the administration, because it creates a natural marketing opportunity.
The administration says the deadline is actually Feb. 15, the day after Valentine's Day.