Health Team

Last-minute insurance shoppers given grace period

Posted December 23, 2013
Updated December 24, 2013

— Anticipating heavy traffic on the government's health care website, the Obama administration extended Monday's deadline for signing up for insurance by a day, giving Americans in 36 states more time to select a plan.

It was the latest in a series of pushed-back deadlines and delays that have marked the rollout of the health care law.

But federal officials urged buyers not to procrastinate.

"You should not wait until tomorrow. If you are aiming to get coverage Jan. 1, you should try to sign up today," said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the federal agency in charge of the overhaul.

Bataille said the grace period, which runs through Tuesday, was being offered to accommodate people from different time zones and to allow for any technical problems that might result from a last-minute rush of applicants.

The site had a disastrous, glitch-prone debut in October but has gone through extensive improvements to make it more reliable and increase its capacity, and the administration said the system was running well Monday.

By the afternoon, the site had received a record 850,000 visits, five times the number logged by the same time last Monday, the administration said. Bataille said the system was handling the volume with error rates of less than 1 in 200 and response times at less than one second.

The Obama administration is hoping for a surge of year-end enrollments to show that the technical problems were merely a temporary setback. That would also go a long way toward easing concerns that insurance companies won't be able to sign up enough young, healthy people to keep prices low for everyone.

But the grace period may have been a tacit acknowledgment that the website remains vulnerable to heavy traffic. What's more, the delay offered critics of the Affordable Care Act another opportunity to argue that the law still isn't working and that President Barack Obama keeps changing the rules.

Monday had been the deadline for Americans in the 36 states served by the federal site to sign up if they wanted coverage with the start of the new year. The remaining states operate their own online marketplaces, and some of them have also extended their deadlines.

The changing deadlines made things challenging for those trained to help guide people through The navigators at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh on Monday said that they've seen a spike in interest to enroll since Friday.

"I think there has been some confusion over the whole deadline," navigator Keith Ward said. "Some people are confused about signing up period, so they want to know, 'Am I in time to get insurance?'"

In response to the one-day extension. Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina made the last-minute decision to have its retail store in Morrisville open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, but its call centers will be closed.

Coverage will start Feb. 1 for anyone who signs up after Tuesday and into January.

As the deadline drew new, more than 1 million people visited the website over the weekend, and a federal call center received more than 200,000 calls.

Roger Colyn, 60, of Des Moines, Iowa, was happy when he left his Monday morning appointment with a state enrollment navigator. She helped him sign up for a "silver" plan that will cost him $10.79 in monthly premiums after government aid is factored in.

"I feel relieved," Colyn said.

Others said they will let the date pass without making a decision.

"I'm in no hurry, though it'd be nice to be able to visit a doctor without stress," said Kyle Eichenberger, an uninsured 34-year-old from Oak Park, Ill., who said he hit a wall on the website when he first tried to enroll early on.

"I'm an Obamacare supporter, though I think it is full of problems," Eichenberger said. "I'd like to see the whole system streamlined to be more user-friendly. Keep the basic idea, but don't make me feel like I'm navigating a maze to get a simple checkup."

The government's original deadline already had been pushed back a week because of the website problems. The extra day will add to the already daunting administrative problems for insurance companies, such as inaccuracies on applications, said industry consultant Robert Laszewski.

"Insurers would like to have two to three weeks to process applications. Now they're going to have a week, less one more day," he said. "When the day is done, it doesn't help."

The president himself signed up for coverage over the weekend – a purely symbolic move since he will continue to get health care through the military as commander in chief. He chose a less-expensive "bronze" plan.

Obama said on Friday that more than 1 million Americans had enrolled for coverage since Oct. 1. The administration's estimates call for 3.3 million 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.

Minnesota, one of the states running their own insurance exchanges, extended its Monday deadline to Dec. 31 amid problems with its website and extra-long hold times to reach its help center. Maryland pushed back its cutoff date to Dec. 27. New York extended its deadline to midnight Tuesday.

Nevada stuck to its Monday deadline, and enrollment counselors there reported a surge of interest.

"We have people lined up out our door. We still have walk-ins, people are asking for help. Our phones are ringing nonstop," said Andres Ramirez in Las Vegas.

In Connecticut, which also kept to a Monday deadline, Ronshelle McIntyre, a 41-year-old mother from New Britain, arrived at a state-run insurance store around 9:30 a.m., and by noontime, she was among about 40 people waiting to speak with a specialist. Some were told the wait could be two hours or more.

"I don't mind," said the mother of three. "For health insurance, I think all it's going to cost me is a little bit of time and patience to get it plugged up, you know?"


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  • sceeter Dec 24, 2013

    I have been mandated, by law, to obtain health insurance through a "exchange" & pay premiums, as well as sky high deductibles, & other various out of pocket costs. If I do not do so, I will be taxed penalized.

    The "cheapest" premium I was assessed was thru BCBS for $97/month. Great. Only, it has a $6300 annual individual deductible & other assorted out of pocket costs.

    So, I can obtain the $97/m plan & get the pretty card, in the mail to show all the docs - hospitals - pharmacies, etc. BUT cannot afford the out of pocket costs to hopefully total $6300 BEFORE year's end.

    May as well not have insurance OR have it, simply to show a card. Either way, I'll not be able to pay overall,& will need charity care programs to offset. Then again; to make most of you happy - I'll just not go at all & hopefully die soon, which would reduce the overall population.

    Hope to get a job here soon, but then the 2 interviews I went on last week (1 FT & 1 PT) said "no insurance benefit offered".

  • bobbatchelor Dec 24, 2013

    who do you suppose is going to have to pay for all this mess. you guess it. the 50% that pay taxes.

  • bobbatchelor Dec 24, 2013

    What a train wreck.

  • aspenstreet1717 Dec 24, 2013

    The ACA did nothing to solve high costs. Zero. Not one additional Doctor but thousands of new government employees.

  • cjw6105 Dec 24, 2013

    The Obama people certainly have the spirit of Christmas in mind with their Unaffordable Care Act. It is certainly better to give than to receive.

  • jonstewartrules Dec 24, 2013

    Found out you can get DENTAL insurance on the website as well. Signed up for that plus a great health plan. Awesome! Let the right wing whiners whine. It's all they have left.

  • mikeyfan5600 Dec 24, 2013

    Obama has state he signed up but will not use the insurance. Maybe he doesn't want to pay the out of pocket 12,500 deductible the policy will require. Or maybe it's because he won't be able to use the doctor of his choice. Or could it be the long wait people will start seeing trying to get an appointment. Another, one of his do as he says not as I do policies.

  • robertbsmith1 Dec 24, 2013

    Obama "symbolically enrolls" in ACA that he won't really use, doesn't put his personal information on the website because of security reasons, and changes the law based upon what works best for him politically. That pretty much sums up his presidency..... deceit and lies.

  • PanthersFan45 Dec 24, 2013

    "By the afternoon, the site had received a record 850,000 visits"

    Those are visits, probably a lot of window shopping going on. Doesn't mean people are signing up. If they were we'd be hearing about those numbers. The numbers well short of the goal for sign-ups.

  • GovernmentMule Dec 23, 2013

    "Where do you think the money was coming from last month? Spoiler alert - it wasn't Mars." - hardycitrus

    That's right! And that makes my point for me... the ACA doesn't 'solve' anything vis-a-vis taxpayers and subsidies to low income people. It's just a shell game. Taxpayers are STILL on the hook, just like before.