WASHINGTON — You’ll have to get health care coverage by Feb. 15 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.

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You still have to be covered by March 31 to avoid the new penalties for remaining uninsured. But to successfully accomplish that, you have to send in your application by the middle of February. Coverage would then start on March 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 was not authorized to speak publicly and insisted on anonymity.

It’s the latest bit of confusion involving the complex requirements of President Obama’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act. The biggest one was a one-year delay of a requirement that larger employers offer coverage, announced this summer. Brian Haile, senior vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt, said government agencies initially had different interpretations of the enrollment deadline. The Health and Human Services department, which is taking the lead in implementing the law, kept referring to March 31. But the Internal Revenue Service, which handles most of the financial aspects, suggested that the deadline had to be in February.

“There were inconsistencies,” said Haile. It took several inquiries by Jackson Hewitt over the past few weeks to clear up the uncertainty, he said.

Starting next year, the 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.