Health care program on track to sign up 7 million, officials say

03/31/2014 11:06 PM

03/31/2014 11:06 PM

The new federal healthcare program is on track to hit 7 million sign-ups as a result of a deadline-day surge, government officials told The Associated Press on Monday.

Two officials spoke on condition of anonymity Monday because they were not authorized to discuss the matter ahead of an official announcement.

Seven million sign-ups was the original target set by the Congressional Budget Office for subsidized private health insurance offered through new online markets.

That was scaled back to 6 million after the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov last fall.

The 7 million mark would beat expectations.

It was in sight on a day when the administration saw surging consumer interest in the nation’s newest social program, but struggled with repeated website glitches

Hundreds of thousands of Americans rushed to apply for health insurance Monday, but deadline day brought long, frustrating waits and a new spate of website ills.

“This is like trying to find a parking spot at Wal-Mart on Dec. 23,” said Jason Stevenson, working with a Utah nonprofit group helping people enroll.

At times, more than 125,000 people were simultaneously using HealthCare.gov, straining it beyond its capacity. For long stretches Monday, applicants were shuttled to a virtual waiting room where they could leave an email address and be contacted later.

Officials said the site had not crashed but was experiencing very heavy volume. The website, which was receiving 1.5 million visitors a day last week, had recorded about 1.6 million through 1 p.m.

Supporters of the healthcare law fanned out across the country in a final dash to sign up uninsured Americans. People not signed up for health insurance by the deadline, either through their jobs or on their own, were subject to being fined by the IRS, and that threat was helping drive the final dash.

The administration announced last week that people still in line by midnight would get extra time to enroll.

The website stumbled early in the day — out of service for nearly four hours as technicians patched a software bug. Another hiccup in early afternoon temporarily kept new applicants from signing up, and then things slowed further. Overwhelmed by computer problems when launched last fall, the system has been working much better in recent months, but independent testers say it still runs slowly.

In San Antonio, a line of last-minute consumers stretched a quarter of the way around the Alamodome. In Houston, the search was on for interpreters to help people enroll for insurance.

For Texas, where one in four people are uninsured, enrollment is crucial, and the state has lagged behind others that face similar obstacles, including powerful politicians that have vocally opposed the program. By March 1, about 295,000 Texans had enrolled, less than half the 629,000 that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had projected would enroll by the deadline.

At a Houston community center, there were immigrants from Ethiopia, Nepal, Eritrea, Somalia, Iraq, Iran and other conflict-torn areas, many of them trying anew after failing to complete applications previously. In addition to needing help with the actual enrollment, they needed to wait for interpreters. Many had taken a day off from work, hoping to meet the deadline.

‘This is epic, man’

At St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington, Del., enrollment counselor Hubert Worthen plunged into a long day. “I got my energy drink,” he said. “This is epic, man.”

The White House and other supporters of the law were hoping for an enrollment surge that would push sign-ups in the new health insurance markets to around 6.5 million people. That’s halfway between a revised goal of 6 million and the original target of 7 million. The first goal was scaled back after the federal website’s disastrous launch last fall, which kept it offline during most of October.

The insurance markets — or exchanges — offer subsidized private health insurance to people who don’t have access to coverage through their jobs. The federal government is taking the lead in 36 states, while 14 other states plus Washington, D.C., are running their own enrollment websites.

New York, running its own site, reported more than 812,000 had signed up by Sunday morning, nearly 100,000 of them last week.

However, it’s unclear what those numbers may mean.

The administration hasn’t said how many of the 6 million people nationally who had signed up before the weekend ultimately closed the deal by paying their first month’s premiums. Also unknown is how many were previously uninsured — the real test of President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul. In addition, the law expands coverage for low-income people through Medicaid, but only about half the states have agreed to implement that option.

Cheering on the deadline-day sign-up effort, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius planned to spend much of the day Monday working out of the department’s TV studio, conducting interviews by satellite with stations around the country.

Extension granted

Though March 31 was officially the last day to sign up, millions of people are potentially eligible for extensions granted by the administration.

Those include people who had begun enrolling by the deadline but didn’t finish, perhaps because of errors, missing information or website glitches. The government says it will accept paper applications until April 7 and take as much time as necessary to handle unfinished cases on HealthCare.gov. Rules may vary in states running their own insurance marketplaces.

The administration is also offering special extensions to make up for all sorts of problems that might have kept people from getting enrolled on time: Natural disasters. Domestic abuse. Website malfunctions. Errors by insurance companies. Mistakes by application counselors.

To seek a special enrollment period, contact the federal call center, at 1-855-889-4325, or the state marketplace and explain what happened. It’s on the honor system. If the extension is approved, that brings another 60 days to enroll.

Those who still don’t get health insurance run the risk that the Internal Revenue Service will fine them next year for remaining uninsured.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Monday that Republicans remain committed to repealing Obama’s law.

Associated Press staff writer Ramit Plushnick-Masti contributed to this report from Houston.

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