Obamacare Sign-Up Extended as Almost 2 Million Use Site

Consumers waiting until the last minute to buy health coverage under Obamacare received a reprieve as a record number of users visited the U.S. online insurance marketplace.

The deadline to sign up for health plans that begin Jan. 1 was extended to midnight today from yesterday for most of the U.S., as healthcare.gov saw a single-day record of about 2 million visitors. Consumers who believe technical issues prevent their enrollment by the deadline can appeal beginning Dec. 26 to gain coverage effective at the start of the new year, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said today.

President Barack Obama has struggled to carry out the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the biggest overhaul of the U.S. health-care system since the 1960s. The law has been hamstrung by delays, website outages and political backlash. The late changes probably are necessary to smooth the transition to the new insurance system in January, said Henry Aaron, a health economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“That kind of willingness to do things manually, do whatever it takes to be done to make sure people do not get disappointed at key dates, is absolutely critical right now and there are indications that the feds are belatedly figuring that out,” Aaron said in a phone interview.

Insurers had agreed to begin coverage at the start of 2014 for people who selected policies by the deadline as long as they send their first payments by Jan. 10. With the enrollment extension, people who buy plans from tomorrow through Jan. 15 will get coverage Feb. 1. The last deadline to sign up for a health plan in 2014 remains March 31.

Final Decisions

“Our highest priority is making sure that everyone who wants to enroll to have health care coverage by Jan. 1 is able to do so, particularly since consumers had a hard time accessing healthcare.gov in October and November,” Julie Bataille, a CMS spokeswoman, said today in an e-mail.

The federal enrollment system has been functional since repairs to the site were announced Dec. 1, though it is still slow, said John Foley, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County in Florida, a group authorized to help people sign up for coverage. Foley said his organization’s six “navigators” need about 90 minutes, on average, to enroll a customer, and the group can sign up a total of about 30 people on a good day.

Plodding Effort

“It’s like molasses getting through it,” he said today in a telephone interview.

Errors at the site no longer halt a customer’s progress, as they did in October and November, though “we thought we’d be able to get people into the system a lot quicker,” Foley said.

While acceding to some of the late changes requested by the administration, insurers have resisted other concessions such as retroactive enrollment and out-of-network coverage. The enrollment extension was another irritant to the industry.

“Health plans will continue to do everything they can to help consumers through the enrollment process and mitigate potential confusion or disruption caused by all of these last-minute changes to the rules and deadlines,” Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s Washington lobby group, said yesterday.

Sign-Ups Increase

While enrollment had been sluggish from the Oct. 1 introduction of the marketplaces through November, sign-ups accelerated in December, Obama said at a Dec. 20 news conference. More than 500,000 people in the 36 states served by the federal exchange selected plans in the first three weeks of the month, the president said.

Obama’s staff, in a symbolic move, signed the president up for a health-care plan this past weekend through the District of Columbia exchange, Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said yesterday. While the president receives his health care from the military, he enrolled “as a show of support” for the new marketplaces, the White House said.

Obama’s exchange plan covers only himself, not his family, and the premium is less than $400 per month, the White House said.

Administration officials have said they anticipated the pace of enrollment would increase as the year-end coverage deadline approached. Similar increases have been seen by many of the 14 state-run exchanges, state officials said.

State Statistics

In New York, about 157,000 people signed up in private plans sold through the state exchange, John Emery, a spokesman for New York State of Health, said today in an e-mail. In California, which also runs its own exchange, “our preliminary numbers are we’ve topped 400,000” enrollments in private plans, Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee said.

California planned to close enrollment yesterday for policies starting Jan. 1, Lee said, although anyone who started an application then will have coverage at the first of the year.

“We’ve been very clear that the 23rd is the deadline,” Lee said. “We’ve also been very clear that we’re going to help people get across the finish line if they’ve made a good-faith effort today.”

In addition to the private plans, at least 3.9 million people have been found eligible for Medicaid, the state-run health program for the poor, or for state children’s health programs since the exchanges opened Oct. 1, CMS, the agency overseeing enrollment, said in a report. It’s not known how many of those people have actually enrolled in the programs.

The administration had set a goal of signing up 7 million people through the new federal and state insurance marketplaces by the March 31 end of the six-month enrollment period.

Obama earlier pushed back a key application deadline, delayed a small-business health exchange and extended a program for “high-risk” pools of sick Americans. On Dec. 19, his administration said hundreds of thousands of people whose health plans are being canceled because their coverage doesn’t meet Obamacare rules will be exempt next year from the health law’s mandate that all Americans carry medical insurance.

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