The unprecedented six-month period for people to sign up for health coverage ended yesterday much as it began: with the government's HealthCare.gov website swamped and overwhelmed.
First, a software glitch on the website yesterday morning made application and enrollment tools unavailable to new users for nearly four hours.
Then, people who encountered a message that they were being placed in an online "waiting room" because of a large number of visitors had the option to submit their email addresses. They were later notified when it was a good time to continue working on their applications.
The HealthCare.gov website, which was receiving 1.5 million visitors a day last week, had recorded about 1.6 million through 2 p.m. EDT.
"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.
A grace period of a week or two is expected for those who began the application process by yesterday but hadn't finished for some reason.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said 125,000 consumers were on the website at its peak yesterday.
"That system, I don't think it was built to anticipate the kind of surge that they had," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
"The nature of people is to procrastinate, to put off until tomorrow what really needs to be done."
Some of the association's staff members recently have been working 18-hour days to help people sign up for coverage, Hamler-Fugitt said.
About 70 percent of callers seeking coverage are eligible for Medicaid, she said, while the rest can purchase coverage -- and, in many cases, qualify for subsidies -- through the new health-insurance marketplaces.
Staff members and volunteers with Enroll America, which is trying to maximize the number of people who have health coverage, were using a "triage" system yesterday to sift through the large number of people seeking help, said Trey Daly, director of the nonprofit's Ohio operations.
People found to be eligible for Medicaid were asked for their contact information so that priority yesterday could be given to people who wanted to purchase coverage through the government's health-insurance marketplace.
"We absolutely are seeing signs of a surge," Daly said yesterday. "Despite fits and starts, we'r e seeing that the promise of the Affordable Care Act is being fulfilled."
CareSource, which is selling exchange plans in central Ohio, said yesterday that it was seeing a record number of enrollees. Signups had topped 25,000, said Scott Streator, the nonprofit's vice president for the health-insurance marketplace.
More than 60 percent of the people signing up for CareSource's exchange plans previously had been uninsured, Streator said.
A spokesman for Medical Mutual of Ohio, which had about 28,000 people signed up through its exchange plans as of March 21, reported "very high" volumes when its call-center phone lines opened yesterday morning.
Shane Kaylor, 42, of Columbus, was among local residents who signed up for coverage yesterday at the last minute.
Although he doesn't expect to qualify for a tax credit to reduce his premiums, he said he still found his options affordable.
The self-employed roofer, who said he has been uninsured for several years, said the penalty for not having health insurance convinced him to sign up.
"It's a must, or they'll ding your taxes," he said.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this story.
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)