White House Plans to Extend Purchase Deadline for Health Insurance
You don't have to be covered by March 31, you just have to have started the process.
The White House has no plans to delay the individual mandate, but apparently it does plan to give everyone a break on the exact date that coverage has to begin:
Amid mounting criticism, the White House said Wednesday that it plans to push back the deadline requiring Americans to purchase health insurance — a provision of the Obama administration’s health care law widely known as the individual mandate — by as much as six weeks, as experts scramble to fix the technical bugs plaguing HealthCare.gov, administration officials told NBC News.
....As the law stands now, individuals are expected to begin the application process via HealthCare.gov by Feb. 15 to avoid a financial penalty. But under the prospective change, individuals will be expected to have started enrollment by March to avoid incurring the penalty.
The current law says you need to have insurance by midnight on March 31. Since the application process takes a while, that means you need to begin by February 15 in order to meet the deadline. Under this new rule, as long as you've begun the application process by March 31, you'll be counted as covered and won't have to pay a fine.
I'm a little surprised the administration is taking this action so soon. After all, if the Obamacare website is up and running by mid-November, that should still leave plenty of time for everyone to meet the old deadline. This suggests that the White House has already concluded that fixing the online application process is going to be a long slog.
UPDATE: Sarah Kliff has a more detailed explanation here. It turns out the reason for the February 15 date is actually a little more complicated than I suggested. But the bottom line remains the same: under the old rules, you needed to apply by February 15. Under the new rules you need to apply by March 31.