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Last-minute insurance shoppers given grace period

December 23rd, 2013 4:17 pm by CARLA K. JOHNSON, AP Medical Writer

Last-minute insurance shoppers given grace period

This Dec. 20, 2013, file image shows part of the website in Washington, that notes to enroll by Dec. 23 for coverage starting as soon as Jan. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File)

CHICAGO (AP) — Anticipating heavy traffic on
the government's health care website, the Obama administration effectively
extended Monday's deadline for signing up for insurance by a day, giving
Americans in 36 states more time to select a plan.

The grace period — which runs through Tuesday
— was the latest in a series of pushed-back deadlines and delays that have
marked the rollout of the health care law.

But federal officials urged buyers not to

"You should not wait until tomorrow. If
you are aiming to get coverage Jan. 1, you should try to sign up today,"
said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the federal agency in charge of the

Bataille said the grace period was being
offered to accommodate people from different time zones and to deal with any
technical problems that might result from a last-minute rush of applicants.

The site had a disastrous,
glitch-prone debut in October, but the government reported on Twitter that it was
running smoothly Monday morning. It had no immediate estimates of how many
people visited the site.

Monday had been the deadline for Americans in
the 36 states served by the federal website to sign up if they wanted coverage
upon the start of the new year. The remaining states operate their own online
marketplaces, and some of them have also extended their deadlines slightly.

The extra day will add incrementally to the
already daunting administrative problems for insurance companies, such as
inaccuracies on applications, said health care industry consultant Robert

"Insurers would like to have two to three
weeks to process applications. Now they're going to have a week, less one more
day," he said. "When the day is done, it doesn't help."

President Barack Obama himself signed up for
health insurance through the Washington marketplace over the weekend — a purely
symbolic move since he will continue to get health care through the military as
commander in chief.

The White House said he enrolled to show
support for the marketplaces, and he chose a less-expensive "bronze"

Obama said on Friday that more than 1 million
Americans had enrolled for coverage since Oct. 1. The administration's
estimates call for 3.3 million to sign up by Dec. 31, and the target is 7
million by the end of March.

After that, people who fail to buy coverage
can face tax penalties.

The government's original deadline already had
been pushed back a week because of the technical problems that plagued the
website, but hundreds of upgrades to storage capacity and software have cut
error rates and wait times.

As the Monday deadline drew new, last-minute
health insurance shoppers called help lines and attended enrollment events.
More than 1 million people visited the website over the weekend, and a federal
call center received more than 200,000 calls.

"It's just nonstop now. Everybody knows
about it. Everybody wants it," said Florida enrollment counselor Madeleine
Siegal. She said her organization in Fort Lauderdale was slammed with walk-ins
and appointments Friday, had several weekend enrollment events and opened its
doors an hour early on Monday.

Roger Colyn, 60, of Des Moines, Iowa, was
happy when he left his Monday morning appointment with a state enrollment
navigator. She helped him sign up for a "silver" plan that will cost
him $10.79 in monthly premiums after government aid is factored in.

"I feel relieved," Colyn said.

Others said they will let the date pass
without making a decision.

"I'm in no hurry, though it'd be nice to
be able to visit a doctor without stress," said Kyle Eichenberger, an
uninsured 34-year-old from Oak Park, Ill., who said he hit a wall on the
website when he first tried to enroll early on.

"I'm an Obamacare supporter, though I
think it is full of problems," Eichenberger said. "I'd like to see
the whole system streamlined to be more user-friendly. Keep the basic idea, but
don't make me feel like I'm navigating a maze to get a simple checkup."

Minnesota, one of the states running their own
insurance exchanges, also had a Monday deadline. But amid problems with its
website and extra-long hold times to reach its help center, it extended the
cutoff date eight days, through Dec. 31.

Maryland has also extended its deadline, to
Dec. 27.

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