In a flood of last-minute sign-ups, hundreds of thousands of Americans rushed to apply for health insurance Monday, but deadline day for President Barack Obama's overhaul brought long, frustrating waits and a new spate of website ills.
It happened early and often in California, which leads the nation in enrollments since Oct. 1 and hit 1.2 million enrollees by 2 a.m. By early evening, however, insurance exchange officials were forced to raise a white flag after the website repeatedly stalled from the crush of applicants.
So overwhelming were the numbers of applicants that Covered California announced the exchange would now honor any attempt to sign up before the midnight deadline, even if a person could not get to a certain stage to verify that online.
"We have consistently said that we put consumers at the center of everything we do, and if we have systemic issues, we address them systemically," Covered California's Executive Director Peter Lee told reporters in the second news conference of the day held to address website demand and volume that he called "unprecedented."
As a result of the meltdown, Lee said the exchange would "adjust our policy" and allow anyone who was unable to create an online account an extension until April 15. But they would need to work with a certified insurance agent or certified enrollment counselor to sign up.
Monday's sign-ups raised the hopes of the White House and other supporters of the law who anticipated an enrollment surge that would push the numbers in the new health insurance markets to around 6.5 million people. That's halfway between a revised goal of 6 million and the original target of 7 million. The first goal was scaled back after the federal website's disastrous launch last fall, which kept it offline during most of October.
But the system had seemed to right itself since then -- and in some ways, Monday's problems were the price of popularity. While many Republican politicians continue to demand a shutdown of the health care law and some applicants are seeing higher insurance bills, many others are getting cheaper, better health coverage -- or are able to afford insurance where they could not before.
The insurance markets -- or exchanges -- offer subsidized private health insurance to people who don't have access to coverage through their jobs. Much like the federal government's deadline reprieve announced last week, Lee said the new rules would operate on an honor system. Those who don't sign up by April 15 face a penalty of $95 or 1 percent of their income, whichever is greater.
Monday's technical problems were bad enough to drive tens of thousands of people to attend enrollment events held Monday around the state and Bay Area.
"I've been trying to get on the damn website for months, and then I just panicked and came down," said Sara Shopkow, 60, a freelance grant writer and editor from Oakland who was among dozens of would-be enrollees waiting in a line Monday afternoon that snaked around the lobby of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.
"I guess I just kept putting it off," said Oakland resident Paul Encinas, 32, a video game producer who is running out of coverage after getting laid off a few months ago. "Procrastination, that's why I'm here."
Encinas and at least 150 people crowded the center in just the first 20 minutes of an hours-long enrollment event, all of them seeking help from staff of the Service Employees International Union.
"We're a little bit overwhelmed," said SEIU worker Leon Chow, scanning the crowd for those who needed help with language interpretation.
Desperation descended nationwide Monday, especially after the federal government's website stumbled early in the day -- out of service for nearly four hours as technicians patched a software bug. Another hiccup in early afternoon temporarily kept new applicants from signing up, and then things slowed further. Overwhelmed by computer problems when it launched last fall, the system has been working much better in recent months, but independent testers say it still runs slowly .
"This is like trying to find a parking spot at Wal-Mart on Dec. 23," said Jason Stevenson, working with a Utah nonprofit group helping people enroll.
At times, more than 125,000 people were simultaneously using the federal government's insurance exchange HealthCare.gov, straining it beyond its capacity. For long stretches Monday, applicants were shuttled to a virtual waiting room where they could leave an email address and be contacted later.
Officials said the site had not crashed but was experiencing very heavy volume.
In California, as the hours crept by, those unable to make it online headed out to take advantage of the very solution Lee would recommend by early evening: certified insurance agents and enrollment counselors.
At an early Monday event at Berkeley City College, Sam Burd, a Covered California certified educator, was directing a health care sign-up organized by Volunteering for Oakland.
He said he expected about 70 people to sign up. An hour before the event closed, Burd said he was seeing more adults in the 18-34 age group and more Latinos enrolling than at previous events also hosted by the organization.
Both groups' enrollment numbers have been lagging, a concern to insurers who had hoped each demographic, which tend to be younger and healthier, would balance out the risk pool of sicker and older enrollees.
Gary Flaxman, 52, of Oakland, was among those happy to sign up for a plan under the landmark health care law, even though he said he doesn't need health insurance at the moment.
"Having said that, I'll probably get hit by a car when I walk out of here," joked Flaxman, an unemployed accounting consultant.
Staff writers Matt O'Brien and Doug Oakley and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
©2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)