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Interest in Obamacare surges ahead of enrollment deadline

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WASHINGTON — As Monday's deadline approaches to sign up for insurance under President Obama's health law, more than 1 million people a day are visiting HealthCare.gov, Obama administration officials said Wednesday.

The site — the main portal for insurance marketplaces in 36 states — drew 1.2 million visitors Tuesday and 1.1 million visitors Monday, according to the administration.

Over the same period, call centers received more than 500,000 calls. California's state-run health insurance exchange reported a similar surge in interest, with nearly 40,000 people picking a health plan Monday and Tuesday.

Despite the crush, the website, which crashed repeatedly last year, has been stable, said Kurt DelBene, a former Microsoft executive who has been overseeing the website operations as a senior advisor to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

"Since the traffic started to climb, we have seen only minor issues, all of which have been addressed rapidly," DelBene said.

The surge in consumers comes as the administration is taking steps to ensure that Americans who start the enrollment process by Monday but fail to complete it will still be able to get health coverage.

The administration issued formal guidance Wednesday indicating the federal government will provide consumers a "limited amount of additional time to finish the application and enrollment period."

Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is overseeing HealthCare.gov, would not specify how long consumers would have to complete the process.

To qualify for the extension, consumers will have to attest only that they started the process before the deadline.

In California, the state-run health insurance exchange said it would give residents until April 15 to finish their application if they take a few simple steps to start signing up before midnight Monday.

"We are concerned that high numbers of people will come to our doors at the last minute and won't be able to get enrolled in time," said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California.

This type of leeway has been granted in the past. In 2006, the Bush administration issued a similar extension, giving seniors extra time to sign up for a plan to cover the new Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.

Insurers nonetheless are eyeing the Affordable Care Act extension warily. "The new special open enrollment period needs to be limited to a defined period of time with a clear end date. This helps to ensure there is an incentive for people to enroll," said Clare Krusing, a spokeswoman for America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group.

Republicans, meanwhile, renewed their attacks on the law. "What the hell is this, a joke?" House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said at his weekly news conference in the Capitol. "This is part of a long-term pattern of this administration manipulating the laws for its own convenience. And it's not hard to understand why the American people question this administration's commitment to the rule of law."

Obama administration officials had said people who do not start the enrollment process by Monday would have to wait to get coverage on the marketplace until the next open enrollment period, which begins in November.

After Tuesday, people who lose their job, get divorced or otherwise lose their health insurance through a change in life circumstance will still be able to enroll in health coverage through the marketplace.

Americans who do not have coverage this year may be subject to a penalty of $95 per adult, or 1% of their income, when they file their taxes next year.

noam.levey@latimes.com

michael.memoli@latimes.com

Times staff writer Chad Terhune contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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BusinessLaws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeAffordable Care Act (Obamacare)ConsumersBarack Obama
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