Traffic Surges as Signup Deadline Extended a Day

Registration assistants across the country reported increases in applicants.

by Adam Smeltz, McClatchy News Service / December 24, 2013

Kenneth Eleam logged on Monday to with no expectations, figuring it was better just to see how the beleaguered federal website might cough up his insurance options.

Eleam, 56, of Point Breeze said the process was seamless and took him 30 minutes as the Obama administration reported record traffic just before an extended registration deadline under the health care law.

"It surprised me, actually, after all the talk," said Eleam, whose visit to the website was among more than 1 million the administration reported on Monday. "It was clear."

The agency running the website said it would accept applications through Tuesday from Americans seeking coverage under the Affordable Care Act to take effect by Jan. 1. That amounts to a one-day extension for people in 36 states, the latest in a series of pushed-back deadlines and delays since the site debuted in October.

The grace period will accommodate people from different time zones and allow for any technical problems that might emerge from a last-minute rush of applicants, said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The website was running with a slim error rate -- fewer than one in 200 -- as it processed five times the number of visits it recorded a week earlier, according to the agency.

"They're not winning any style points for implementation. It certainly has been a mess," said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington. "I think they have been trying to fix problems as they come up, put out fires and extend extra fairness and flexibility for people."

At first, wholesale technical problems on the website hobbled the number of people signing up for medical insurance under the law. Enrollment through the first two months of operation was nearly 365,000, a fraction of the 1.2 million goal set by the Obama administration for that period.

The Government Accountability Office will investigate the troubled rollout at the request of Sen. Bob Casey, the Scranton Democrat said on Monday.

Meanwhile, administration officials hope registrations will keep picking up as repairs take hold on the website. President Obama said on Friday that more than 1 million Americans had enrolled for coverage since Oct. 1, and administration estimates call for 3.3 million people to sign up by Dec. 31.

Obama's goal is 7 million by the end of March, at which point those without health coverage can face tax penalties.

While the administration did not specify how many people registered through on Monday, registration assistants across the country reported increases in applicants.

Eight people signed up for help with registration on Monday at Citizen Power, a Squirrel Hill-based nonprofit group. There was one a month ago, said Executive Director Titus North.

Now that the website works better, "People are finding problems with the actual law," North said. He cited loopholes in federal health subsidies for graduate students and some families.

Two Pittsburgh-based insurers offering policies through the website -- Highmark and UPMC Health Plan -- did not discuss their latest enrollment numbers. Highmark declined to comment.

"It is still too early for us to know anything definitive about our enrollment figures or demographics," UPMC spokesman Bill Modoono said in a statement. "We will be prepared to deal with any deadline extension issues as they arise."

Pollitz expected registration to surge through the deadline.

"This is going to become our new way of life," she said. "The sooner we can figure out how this is supposed to work, I think, the better for everybody."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.