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Software error, traffic snarl health sign-ups

People waited to purchase insurance under the Affordable Care Act at a store set up at a shopping mall in Miami.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

People waited to purchase insurance under the Affordable Care Act at a store set up at a shopping mall in Miami.

WASHINGTON — A frenzied last-minute scramble to sign up for health insurance overloaded phone lines and temporarily overwhelmed the website of the federal marketplace Monday, as hundreds of thousands of people around the country raced to beat the deadline to obtain coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Administration officials, stepping up the push for enrollment in the final hours, said they were confident they would reach their original goal of having 7 million people sign up for private health plans through federal and state exchanges.

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But the end of the open enrollment period, which began six months ago with the disastrous debut of the federal website, starts a new phase expected to be defined by the economics of health insurance as well as by politics.

Though HealthCare.gov, the federal website, performed markedly better Monday than on the day it opened, many consumers still struggled to enroll.

The site unexpectedly stopped taking applications for several hours early Monday because of a software problem discovered during scheduled maintenance overnight, said Aaron Albright, a spokesman at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency running the site. For at least an hour at midday, the site again thwarted people trying to create accounts so they could buy insurance online.

“We are experiencing record volume on HealthCare.gov, with 3 million visits as of 8 p.m. and approximately 125,000 concurrent users at the peak” on Monday, Albright said. He added that as of 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, “we had received 1 million calls to the call center.”

At the White House, Jay Carney, the press secretary, said the number of people signing up for health care would be “significantly above 6 million,” and he reminded journalists of the predictions of doom when HealthCare.gov crashed last fall.

Carney said he did not have “any concrete numbers” to show how many people had paid premiums, as required to activate coverage.

In a television interview with KWTV in Oklahoma, Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said reports from insurers indicated that “somewhere between 80, 85, some say as high as 90 percent, have paid so far.”

Officials in Washington said they were delighted to see pictures of long lines of people trying to obtain insurance. The demand, they said, vindicated President Obama’s approach to health policy — and the bill passed four years ago without support from a single Republican.

The Obama administration is offering an unspecified amount of extra time to people who tried but failed to complete their applications by the deadline Monday.

States that run their own exchanges have set separate enrollment deadlines. They include Massachusetts, which moved its annual deadline to April 15 after people ran into problems using the state’s computer system.

Though the open enrollment period was coming to an end, the same could not be said for the political fight over the law. White House officials and their allies said they were planning a big effort to make sure newly insured Americans turn out and vote in this year’s midterm elections and they cited the health care law in fund-raising appeals to supporters.

“The narrative around Obamacare is changing,” said Jon Carson, executive director of Organizing for Action, a grass-roots group that grew out of Obama’s 2012 campaign organization. “Now that 6 million Americans have signed up for coverage, you can feel the wind being taken out of our opponents’ sails.”

Republican critics of the law showed no signs of relenting and bemoaned what they called a deadline day disaster. “Millions of Americans are facing higher premiums, canceled plans, and the loss of doctors and hospitals they liked,” said the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The last-minute surge created a wide range of emotions among consumers, from happiness and satisfaction at having insurance for the first time to frustration at being unable to get answers or assistance, or affordable coverage.

In Miami, Judy McKinley, 58, sought help at an enrollment event and was pleased to line up coverage. McKinley said she had worked for her husband’s financial services company until he died. “I have no job, no insurance, and no income, and I need a mammogram,” she said. “The relief that I’m walking away with is worth the headache that I have.”

But for Crisdelin Calduch, 26, who works part time as an assistant manager at a Dollar Tree store in Cutler Bay, south of Miami, the premium — $160 a month — was too high.

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