HealthCare.gov stumbles on deadline day as consumers race to sign up for insurance

The first six-month window for Americans to gain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act closed on Monday with large numbers of consumers speeding to get coverage at the last minute. Some of them encountered obstacles as HealthCare.gov, the main enrollment Web site, faltered on and off throughout the day.

Union halls, shopping-mall kiosks and insurance company lobbies across the country were jammed with people racing to get insurance on the final day before the law required most Americans to choose health insurance or risk a financial penalty.

“It’s like going into the mall on Christmas Eve,” said Brian Lobley, senior vice president of Independence Blue Cross, which set up a “Countdown to Coverage” with extra desks and phone lines in the usually empty lobby of its headquarters four blocks from city hall in Philadelphia’s Center City. Employees whose jobs have nothing to do with sales were pressed into service, and customers were triaged as they walked in, with priority given to people who had not even begun to shop for insurance before Monday.

In Los Angeles, the local affiliate of the Service Employees International Union began an enroll-athon at 5 a.m. and, by the end of the day, had attracted more than 700 people to a lively scene with food trucks, music and more than 50 staffers and volunteers.

By the time President Obama appeared Monday on “The CBS Evening News,” he sounded relieved. “We admittedly had just a terrible start because the Web site wasn’t working,” Obama said, referring to the site’s rocky beginnings. “But given how gloomy I think everybody’s assessment was back in the middle of November, I’d say that we’re on our way to making sure that no American ever has to go without health care.”

Graphic

Obamacare

The ACA's 21 deadline extensions

A look back at every Affordable Care Act deadline that was extended by the Obama administration.

By Monday evening, federal officials could not say how many people had signed up. But health officials said that by 8 p.m., 1 million people had phoned in to a network of call centers across the country — nearly a half-million more than the total for any other day since the federal insurance marketplace and 14 similar state ones opened on Oct. 1. And 3 million had visited HealthCare.gov, they said.

Late in the day, more than 150,000 people were on the Web site, and the volume stayed at that level through much of the evening, according to a person familiar with the numbers.

The outpouring of last-minute interest reinforced arguments by the Obama administration and its allies, made since the law was enacted four years ago, that it would become popular once Americans had a chance to get the new health plans that it spawned — and, in most cases, with federal subsidies to help pay for them.

Still, as the deadline arrived, fresh evidence emerged that the law, which has set in motion the broadest changes to the U.S. health-care system in nearly half a century, remains mired in a wide partisan divide. A new Washington Post poll indicates that three in four Democrats support the law — a rise of 11 percentage points since January — compared with one in five Republicans.

The last day of sign-ups contained an echo of the computer troubles that dominated the early months of the open-enrollment period last fall. During two periods of the day that lasted a total of several hours, HealthCare.gov was inaccessible to new customers — and early on, to anyone at all.

Instead of opening at 5 a.m. as scheduled, after a routine maintenance period the Web site remained closed until after 8 a.m. because of a software problem. Then, starting shortly after noon Monday, visitors to the Web site were greeted with a screen saying: “We need you to wait here, so we can make sure there’s room for you to have a good experience on our site.” The screen invited users to leave e-mail addresses so they could be contacted when the volume lessened, although it was unclear whether that would be later Monday or after the official deadline.

Federal health officials said the second problem occurred because the system that creates new accounts was overloaded by the number of people trying to use it at the same time. During this time, consumers were unable to start new applications, although those who already were further along in the steps toward enrollment were able to continue, according to Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency overseeing the new insurance exchange.

By about 1:30 p.m., the site had begun to reopen, although access to it remained intermittent throughout the afternoon and into the evening as federal health officials instituted a “virtual waiting room” for people who could not get on the site.

By late afternoon, Jeanne Devoe, a retiree who lives outside Asheville, N.C., had been trying for more than an hour to get onto HealthCare.gov to help her 27-year-old son get a health plan. He had begun the application process before but could not remember his password. Devoe had gotten the Web site to send a link to reset the password, but every time she tried to log back in, she said, she encountered a screen telling her that the site “has a lot of visitors right now!” She phoned a call center and got a recording saying that someone would call back in five to seven business days.

“We’ve gotten lots of phone calls and lots of interest,” said Christopher Cook, owner of Alliance Insurance, an independent insurance agency with three offices around the Winston-Salem, N.C., area. He said Monday night that Alliance’s offices talked to 48 people who wanted to sign up, but because of the Web site troubles they were able to complete only two enrollments online.

Such frenzy materialized Monday even though Obama administration officials had been mindful of the potential for a last-minute surge. They had acknowledged publicly that they were uncertain whether HealthCare.gov could withstand a late rush.

As a result, administration officials decided last week to try to take pressure off the official deadline, saying that anyone who had tried to choose a health plan in the new insurance marketplaces by the last day of March could ask for an extension. People can claim the extra time through an as-yet-unspecified date in April. The government will rely on an honor system in which people will simply have to click on a blue screen, scheduled to appear on HealthCare.gov after Monday, saying that they had previously attempted to enroll.

“I try to tell people: ‘Don’t worry. Just because you can’t get in right now, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to,’ ” said Karla Borders, a manager for enrollment assisters at a senior center in southeastern Wyoming, who spent Monday fielding calls from anxious people who had not yet gotten insurance.

During the past two days, however, scattered consumers were reporting that they had phoned call centers, aware of the chance to get extra time, and were told erroneously that no such extensions exist.

Sandhya Somashekhar and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

Amy Goldstein is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focus on health-care policy.
Lena H. Sun is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on health.
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