Covered California open enrollment ends this Sunday. Sort of.

For starters, the agency announced Thursday that people who start an application by this Sunday get until next Friday, Feb. 20, to finish it. That's similar to steps that Covered California has taken in the past.

But advocates have long been frustrated with the timing of open enrollment. That's because of how penalties for lacking insurance are assessed — on your taxes. The tax deadline isn't for another two months, April 15.

It's easy to imagine that plenty of people will discover the penalty as they file their taxes over the next two months — and simultaneously discover they could be locked out of buying insurance.

In a surprise, Peter Lee told me Thursday afternoon that Covered California, the state's health insurance exchange, is considering "contingency plans."

He said the exchange will be "looking actively" at people who might not have understood there was a penalty. "Do we make a special provision for them between now and the end of tax season?" he said.

Lee stressed there has been no decision and that Covered California is focusing now on getting through open enrollment. "But this is a major issue and we're going to be looking at this in the next week or two," he said.

Lee said the move wouldn't require action by exchange's board. "Covered California has the authority to adopt special enrollment criteria if consumers didn't have the opportunity and didn't have the information to enroll," Lee said.

Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, an advocacy group, seemed intrigued by the idea. "We were never big fans of the open enrollment period to begin with," he said.

Wright said that an additional enrollment period "would attract generally healthy people into coverage," arguing that people who are sick are likely already in the system.

Wright said there was no federally mandated open enrollment period. His agency had advocated at the federal level to tie the open enrollment more closely to the tax season. The current open enrollment started Nov. 15 and runs through Sunday. "You lose a lot of time during the holidays," Wright said, "because no one is focused on (health insurance)."

Nicole Evans, spokeswoman for the California Association of Health Plans, said, "This is the first we've heard of it," and declined to comment as the organization had not received any "official communication" from Covered California.

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