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Groups scrambling to inform uninsured of deadline

WASHINGTON — You may be sick of hearing about the health care law, but if you don’t have insurance, now is the time to tune back in.

On March 31, for the first time, nearly everyone in the United States will be required to be signed up for health insurance or risk paying a fine.

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Those who already have health coverage meet the law’s requirements.

Since October, about 4 million people have signed up for private plans through the new state and federal marketplaces, the Obama administration says, although it’s not clear how many were already insured elsewhere. In addition, many poor adults now have Medicaid coverage for the first time through expansions of the program in about half the states.

Now, the administration, insurers, medical associations, and nonprofit groups are teaming up with volunteers to get the word out to uninsured people and guide them through the sometimes-rocky enrollment process. They plan special events at colleges, libraries, churches, and work sites.

Singing cats, dogs, parrots — even a goldfish — are promoting the message in TV and online spots from the Ad Council.

As recently as last month, three-fourths of the uninsured did not know there was a March 31 deadline, according to polling conducted for the Kaiser Family Foundation. Most said they did not know much about the law and had an unfavorable opinion of it. Many worry they will not be able to afford the new plans.

On March 31, for the first time, nearly everyone in the United States will be required to be signed up for health insurance or risk being fined.

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The enrollment campaign emphasizes that subsidies are available to help low-income and middle-class households pay for their insurance.

You can enroll by going to HealthCare.gov or by calling 1-800-318-2596. Residents of Massachusetts and other states running their own marketplaces will be directed to those sites; other people will go through the federal exchange.

Under the law, people who are not covered in 2014 are liable for a fine. That amounts to $95 per uninsured person or about 1 percent of income, whichever is higher. The penalty goes up in later years.

A year from now, the Internal Revenue Service will ask taxpayers filing their forms for proof of insurance coverage. Insurance companies are supposed to provide that documentation to their customers.

If you owe a penalty for being uninsured, the IRS can withhold it from your refund. The agency cannot put people in jail or garnish wages to get the money.

The next open enrollment period is scheduled to begin Nov. 15, for coverage in 2015.

People who meet the requirements for the Medicaid program can sign up anytime, with no deadline. Also, people remain eligible for Medicare when they turn 65.

Some 12 million people could gain health coverage this year under the law, according to congressional auditors. Even so, tens of millions would go without. That is partly because of illegal immigrants, ineligible for marketplace policies.

Some of the uninsured will not find out about the program in time, will find it confusing or too costly, or will just procrastinate. Some feel confident of their health and prefer to risk going uninsured instead of paying premiums. Others are philosophically against joining.

Figuring out just how many of the uninsured got coverage this year will not be easy because the numbers are fuzzy. The administration’s enrollment count includes people who already were insured and used the exchanges to find a better deal, or switched from private insurance to Medicaid, or already qualified for Medicaid before the changes.

Some who sign up will end up uninsured anyway, if they fail to pay their premiums. The budget experts predict enrollment will grow in future years and by 2017 some 92 percent of legal residents too young for Medicare will have insurance.

But even then, about 30 million people in the United States would go uncovered. A gap in the law means some low-income workers can’t get help. The insurance marketplaces were not designed to serve people whose low incomes qualify them for expanded Medicaid instead.

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