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Published December 23, 2013, 08:41 PM

Obamacare signup deadline pushed back to Tuesday

As Americans scrambled to beat a deadline to sign up for insurance under President Barack Obama's new healthcare law, the White House gave consumers shopping on the program's website an extra day, until December 24, to pick plans for coverage that starts January 1.

By: Susan Cornwell and Roberta Rampton, Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Americans scrambled to beat a deadline to sign up for insurance under President Barack Obama's new healthcare law, the White House gave consumers shopping on the program's website an extra day, until December 24, to pick plans for coverage that starts January 1.

The last-minute move by the Obama administration to accommodate high demand came on a day when officials reported record traffic on HealthCare.gov, the enrollment website that struggled with glitches after its launch in October.

It was the latest in a series of deadline extensions or other changes the administration has imposed on the healthcare program as it has wrestled with the fallout from various technical and political missteps.

Officials said the website received 1.2 million visits over the weekend and another 850,000 by 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) on Monday. They said a call center took 200,000 calls from those seeking insurance under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Going into the weekend, Obama had said that about 1 million people had enrolled for new insurance plans under the law through HealthCare.gov - which serves 36 states - and 14 state-run marketplaces.

The hustle to sign up by the deadline for January 1 coverage - which already had been extended once - seemed to be a positive sign for the Obama administration as it tries to patch up a botched rollout of the president's top domestic policy achievement, a law that requires Americans to get health insurance or face fines.

Obama was embarrassed that HealthCare.gov did not work for most people shopping for insurance for its first two months. He also wound up apologizing for promising that everyone who liked their existing insurance could keep it under Obamacare.

The backlash has torpedoed Obama's approval ratings, alarmed congressional Democrats facing re-election in 2014 and given a boost to Republicans opposed to the healthcare law.

The administration instituted a series of "fixes," but the resulting patchwork of exceptions and deadlines has created confusion among consumers and upset insurance companies that fear the mixed messages could threaten the delicate financial formula around which Obamacare is designed.

On Monday, administration officials continued to encourage uninsured and under-insured Americans to enroll in Obamacare by midnight and said those who sign up before Christmas Day would be eligible for coverage starting January 1.

"If you are aiming to get coverage January 1, you should try to sign up" on Monday, Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a statement.

However, she said, "anticipating high demand and the fact that consumers may be enrolling from multiple time zones, we have taken steps to make sure that those who select a plan through tomorrow will get coverage for January 1."

She was echoed by White House spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri, who warned that waiting until Tuesday to start enrolling in Obamacare would be risky.

"People should not think that they can get on the website (Tuesday) for the first time and try to enroll," she said. "That would be a dangerous thing to do."

In a mid-morning Twitter post on Monday, HealthCare.gov touted "a record day so far."

"Thousands visiting and enrolling now. Queuing deployed to help keep site smooth for users," the post said, referring to an online queuing system that essentially is a waiting room for those seeking to enroll in health coverage.

"There is definitely a rush!" said Lauren Banks of AIDS Alabama, part of Enroll Alabama, one of dozens of "navigator" groups that is helping people sign up for coverage.

"People lost track of time, and suddenly (the deadline is) here."

Exceptions abound

The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires all Americans to be enrolled in coverage or face penalties that start at $95.

So the enrollment deadline for 2014 is particularly significant because it has been widely viewed as providing the first real test of the viability of the healthcare overhaul.

The original deadline was extended from December 15 after HealthCare.gov proved dysfunctional. Obama's administration has reserved the right to change the deadline again "should exceptional circumstances pose barriers to consumers" enrolling on or before Monday.

And there have been multiple exceptions.

A "hardship" exception allows some people not to sign up for any kind of health insurance at all without facing a penalty; it is designed for people who have had problems signing up with Obamacare after seeing their old policies canceled because they did not meet the stepped-up standards of coverage the new law requires.

There also will be an exception for "all those who make a good faith effort to get enrolled by the deadline" but fail to do so because of computer system glitches or other technical difficulties, an Obama administration official said last week. It's unclear what the government will view as a "good faith" effort to enroll, or what type of grace period this exception will involve.

The government bolstered its training and staffing at 17 call centers in anticipation of a last-minute rush of enrollments, adding 800 new agents to its ranks of more than 12,000 people, an administration official said.

For people without insurance, the ultimate sign-up deadline is March 31. Those who need insurance coverage to kick in starting January 1 must sign up before Christmas.

States running their own healthcare exchanges were not bound by the latest federal extension. Connecticut, for example, kept Monday as its deadline, while New York pushed back its deadline by one day, to 11:55 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

"Volume is high and the decision was made to extend the deadline to provide consumers more time" to enroll, said Bill Schwarz, spokesman for the New York State Department of Health. "However, we are not experiencing difficulties such as people stuck in queues."

New York reported early Monday that it had enrolled 188,546 people in health plans after a surge of nearly 54,000 enrollees during the past week.

'Another day, another delay'

Signing up millions of Americans - particularly young, healthy ones that don't have many medical expenses - is crucial to the success of Obama's plan to help millions of uninsured and under-insured Americans finally to obtain medical coverage by the end of March.

It is not yet clear how many consumers may have no insurance coverage during periods of 2014 because they have failed to sign up for coverage online.

Some Republican critics of the law say the frequent delays and changes in the program have confused people.

Representative Fred Upton, a frequent critic of Obamacare, derided Monday's extension as the latest in a string of missed deadlines for the healthcare law.

"Another day, another delay," said Upton, chairman of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee. "As we celebrate Christmas and prepare to ring in the New Year, we continue to ask, 'What's next?' "

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi countered that December has been a good month for Obamacare and predicted the problems will fade with time.

"We'll ride this out," she told reporters. "Having health insurance for many more Americans - as a right for the many, not a privilege for the few - is worth the politics."

The pace of sign-ups has picked up dramatically since October and November, when technical problems crippled HealthCare.gov.

Obama himself, on vacation in Hawaii, signed up for a health insurance plan over the weekend, a so-called "bronze" plan that costs less than $400 a month, the White House said. The move was symbolic because U.S. presidents receive healthcare from the military.