By Susan Cornwell and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON Dec 23 As Americans scrambled to
beat a deadline to sign up for insurance under President Barack
Obama's healthcare law, the White House gave most consumers an
extra day, until Tuesday, to obtain coverage that starts Jan. 1.
The last-minute move by the Obama administration to
accommodate high demand came as it reported record traffic on
HealthCare.gov, the federal enrollment website that struggled
with glitches after its launch in October.
It was the latest impromptu change the administration has
imposed on the healthcare program to address the fallout from a
series of technical and political missteps.
Officials said the website received 1.2 million visits over
the weekend and had surpassed 1 million additional visits by
late afternoon on Monday. They said a call center took 200,000
calls from those seeking insurance under the Affordable Care
Act, known as Obamacare.
The hustle to sign up in time for Jan. 1 coverage could help
the Obama administration as it tries to patch up a botched
rollout of the president's top domestic policy achievement, a
law that requires most Americans to get health insurance or face
Before the Monday rush, well over 1 million people had
signed up for private coverage through HealthCare.gov - which
serves 36 states - and 14 state-run marketplaces, according to
state and federal estimates. The figure, though likely to climb
by Christmas, shows how far the government has to go to reach an
estimated 7 million people by the end of enrollment in March.
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 Jan. 1.
"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," Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a statement.
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," Palmieri said
in an interview on MSNBC. "That would be a dangerous thing to
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 a
system that sends users to an online "waiting room" when web
traffic runs high.
"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."
Navigator group SER National in Illinois said its Obamacare
sign-up events are now attracting hundreds of people compared
with dozens in October and November.
SER's navigator program director Zeke Romo said the
last-minute shoppers include "a lot of people with complicated
medical issues, such as people with children who are on
medication" and are worried about a break in coverage if they
don't sign up in time for Jan. 1 benefits.
The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires most Americans to be
enrolled in coverage by March 31 or face penalties that start at
$95. But the enrollment deadline for Jan. 1 coverage is widely
viewed as the first real test of the viability of the healthcare
The original deadline was extended from Dec. 15 after
HealthCare.gov proved dysfunctional. Late last week, the
administration added a new category of "hardship" exception that
allows some people not to sign up for any kind of health
insurance without facing a penalty. The newest exception is
designed for people who have had problems signing up with
Obamacare after seeing their old policies canceled because they
did not meet the law's stepped-up standards of coverage.
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," said Bill Schwarz,
spokesman for the New York State Department of Health. "However,
we are not experiencing difficulties such as people stuck in
New York reported early Monday that it had enrolled nearly
137,000 people in private health plans after a surge during the
'ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER DELAY'
Republican lawmaker 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."
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