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Politics

White House again stretches deadline for healthcare

Website taxed as millions try to get coverage

President Obama said late last week that more than 1 million Americans had enrolled for coverage since Oct. 1.

Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

President Obama said late last week that more than 1 million Americans had enrolled for coverage since Oct. 1.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Tuesday that it would provide more time for people to sign up for health insurance if they could show that they missed the Tuesday deadline for applications because of problems with the federal health care website.

In effect, the administration was stretching the deadline once again, after a last-minute surge of interest among people seeking coverage. The administration hailed what it described as “amazing interest” in new health insurance options, and said the federal website alone received 2 million visits Monday.

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The original deadline was Dec. 15 for people to sign up for coverage that takes effect in January; it was later extended by eight days. On Monday, the White House added a 24-hour grace period, to 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.

Then Tuesday, in another bid to expand coverage, the administration provided details of a “special enrollment period” for people who would miss the deadline.

“If you weren’t able to enroll in an insurance plan by Dec. 23 because of problems you had using HealthCare.gov, you still may be able to get coverage that starts Jan. 1,” the administration told visitors to the website. “Even though we have passed the Dec. 23 enrollment deadline for coverage starting Jan. 1, we don’t want you to miss out if you’ve been trying to enroll.

“Sometimes despite your best efforts, you might have run into delays caused by heavy traffic to HealthCare.gov, maintenance periods, or other issues with our systems that prevented you from finishing the process on time. If this happened to you, don’t worry — we still may be able to help you get covered as soon as Jan. 1.”

Republicans said the latest move showed that President Obama was desperate to increase enrollment, widely seen as a measure of the success of the health care law.

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But administration officials said the move was a common-sense response to heavy website traffic, which they cited as evidence of the need for more affordable insurance.

Some 48 million Americans are estimated to be uninsured.

Obama said late last week that more than 1 million Americans had enrolled for coverage since Oct. 1. The administration’s estimates call for 3.3 million people to sign up by Dec. 31, and the target is 7 million by the end of March. After that, people who fail to buy coverage can face tax penalties. The revamped website was heavily tested Tuesday as record numbers of Americans rushed to beat the extended deadline for enrolling.

HealthCare.gov, where people in 36 states can shop for coverage, received 2 million visits Monday, its highest one-day total, the government said.

Traffic was not as heavy on Tuesday but still high, the Associated Press reported. White House spokeswoman Tara McGuinness had no immediate estimate of visitors or how many succeeded in obtaining insurance before the midnight deadline. Error rates were lower than 1 in 200, and pages loaded quickly, in less than a half-second, officials said. For various reasons, including technical problems or trouble understanding the instructions, thousands of people sought telephone help and wound up waiting on hold on Christmas Eve at the government’s call center.

Ian Stewart of Salt Lake City said he and his wife, both students, had been trying for weeks to complete their application on the federal site, thwarted by computer error messages each time.

On Tuesday morning, while visiting relatives in Colorado for Christmas, they reached a call center counselor who succeeded in enrolling them. The ‘‘silver’’ plan they chose will cost them $241 a month after a cost-lowering tax credit.

“We’re relieved that we got it working, elated that we got insurance again, and very frustrated that it took this long,” Stewart said.

More than 110,000 people had called the government’s help line by Tuesday afternoon, with wait times averaging 27 minutes, officials said. On Monday, the call center received more than 250,000 calls, a one-day record.

While there were no immediate reports of any major glitches, the White House said that people who can show they missed the deadline because of problems with the website may still be able to get covered by Jan. 1 on a case-by-case basis. Those who try to sign up for the first time after the deadline passes can still get coverage, but it won’t start until Feb. 1.

The one-day grace period was the latest in a string of delays and reversals, and critics of Obama’s signature program seized on it as more evidence that the overhaul is in trouble.

“The amazing, ever-expanding deadline? It’s clearly a sign of desperation by the administration to do everything they can to increase the number of people signing up,” said health economist Gail Wilensky, who ran Medicare for President George H.W. Bush.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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