(USA TODAY) -- More than 1 million visitors logged into HealthCare.gov by lateMonday, racing to meet the administration's new midnight, Christmas Evedeadline to enroll in health insurance.
Officials pushed back theDec. 23 deadline by a day, acknowledging the site was still havingproblems signing people up. Earlier Monday, more than 60,000 people hitthe landing page when it was too busy to accommodate them and left anemail address so they could be alerted when the site wasn't busy, saidJulie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and MedicaidServices.
Enrollment for plans under the Affordable Care Act isfalling far below expectations, especially on the troubled federalwebsite that is handling insurance sales for 36 states. But actualnumbers won't be available until mid-February. The Congressional BudgetOffice projected 7 million people would sign up on the state and federalexchange by the end of 2014.
The deadline for Jan. 1 coverage wasMonday, but because of high demand and to ensure everyone who attemptsto sign up can, Bataille announced people would be able to enroll Dec.24, as well.
"If you want insurance starting Jan. 1, you shouldsign up today," she said Monday. "But if you have trouble due to highdemand, we will make sure we help you get signed up.
"Anticipatinghigh demand and the fact that consumers may be enrolling from multipletime zones, we have taken steps to make sure that those who select aplan through tomorrow will get coverage for Jan. 1," she said.
Themove was "too little too late," for the 70,000 insurance brokers racingto sign up clients for insurance on the exchange, said Jessica Waltman,the top lobbyist for the National Association of Health Underwriters.In Indianapolis, broker Susan Rider said wait times were down butglitches remained Monday, including challenges signing up consumers whowere eligible for subsidies.
"We end up having to complete some of the steps multiple timesonline, while having someone on the phone assisting as well," saysRider. "These clients are thankful for the extension."
PresidentObama signed up for a bronze plan over the weekend, as well. The movewas a symbolic one, as the President is covered through the military, asall presidents are.
In anticipation of heavy online traffic orother technical issues, HHS had already programmed its systems tosupport Jan. 1 coverage for those who attempt to complete theirenrollment through Tuesday. The agency called it a concept similar toElection Day, when those in line when the polls close still get to vote.
Insurers said they'd be standing by to help.
"Healthplans will continue to do everything they can to help consumers throughthe enrollment process and mitigate potential confusion or disruptioncaused by all of these last-minute changes to the rules and deadlines,"said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for the trade group America's HealthInsurance Plans.
Last week, insurers announced they werevoluntarily extending the payment deadline to Jan. 10 "to providegreater peace of mind for consumers purchasing coverage through the newmarketplaces," said Zirkelbach.
Peter Lee's excitement about California's enrollment numbers could be heard over the phone line Monday afternoon.
"It'srockin' and rollin' in California," said Lee, executive director ofCalifornia's health exchange. "Sunday, we saw 27,000 people goend-to-end through the process."
From Friday to Sunday, 77,000people enrolled in private plans, he said. Enrollment through theexchange in private plans now tops 400,000.
"We Americansgenerally leave things to the last minute, whether it's taxes or midtermreports," he said. "But the good news is, it means they've heard themessage."
The volume on the website did, however, cause it to slowdown, and pages may take five or six seconds to load, he said.California is not extending its deadline until Tuesday.
"If forany reason our system doesn't work today, we'll get you there," he said."Some people, we may help them on Thursday. We'll get you across thefinish line."
Insurance shoppers were rallying to meet the deadline in other states, too:
•Illinoissaw its exchange numbers jump up over the weekend, said IllinoisDepartment of Public Health spokeswoman Sabrina Miller. During the firstweekend of December, the state's call center received 222 calls.Saturday and Sunday's call center numbers increased to 1,625. They'vehad a total of 292,229 visitors as of Monday, up 11,894 since Friday.
•NewYork's numbers also increased significantly, up to 421,949 completedapplications, 137,783 enrolled in private plans and 51,763 enrolled inMedicaid. As of Dec. 16, the numbers were: 363,258 had completed anapplication; 95,196 had enrolled in a private plan and 39,426 hadqualified for Medicaid.
•Washington's exchange spokeswoman,Bethany Frey, said things went "really well" over the weekend. Thoughshe didn't have complete numbers, she said the site's staff reported"very busy weekend traffic." Friday, 30,000 people visited the statewebsite.
The deadline extension caught insurance brokers offguard, especially those who weren't planning to work past Monday. InCarlisle, Pa., broker Michelle Grochalski was already thankful she hadfinally shepherded about 18 clients through the arduous process ofenrolling on HealthCare.gov. Unless a new client walks in her officeMonday, "we are completely finished," she said.
It wasn't easy:While one client took just an hour and half, another took two months toenroll through the exchange. For one applicant, Grochalski said she hadto reapply to take a child that didn't exist off their application.
"Tis the season for faith," she laughed.
Inthe time it took to get 18 people signed up on the federal exchange,Grochalski's office processed 50 other insurance applications for peoplewho didn't qualify for subsidies and Medicare applications. The officewill be closed Tuesday and Wednesday and she fears people looking forhelp from brokers after Monday may be out of luck.
Even thoughit's been "like Grand Central Station" in broker Elizabeth Gallops'office Monday, she wasn't happy with the decision to extend thedeadline. She's hoping to get everyone signed up Monday and it will beup to individual brokers if they want to work on Christmas Eve, shesaid.
Things were going better Monday on HealthCare.gov thanFriday when there were delays, said Gallops, who works for JBA Benefitsof Winston-Salem, N.C. She's learned always to start with a freshbrowser window. Monday it took about 15 minutes to get on the site andeach client is taking about an hour and a half to enroll, Gallops said.
HealthCare.gov'squeuing system seemed to be working smoothly Monday; error ratesremained low at .45%, and wait times were minimal.
While that's good news, it's been a long few months for brokers and consumers trying to sign up for insurance, many say.
"I'mglad we could help the people we did. The season is still going to bejolly," said Grochalski. "But there's got to be better ways to gethealth care for all Americans versus the way they did it."
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