By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
WASHINGTON: 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.
“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 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. The website, which was receiving 1.5 million visitors a day last week, had recorded about 1.6 million through 2 p.m.
Supporters of the health-care law fanned out across the country in a final dash to sign up uninsured Americans. People not signed up for health insurance by the deadline, either through their jobs or on their own, were subject to being fined by the IRS, and that threat was helping drive the final dash.
The administration announced last week that people still in line by midnight would get extra time to enroll.
The website stumbled early in the day — out of service for nearly four hours as technicians patched a software bug. Another hiccup in the early afternoon temporarily kept new applicants from signing up.
But the process was much smoother for some applicants.
Karen Ruffin of Cincinnati was among those who had put off finding a health plan until the final day amid concerns the process would be difficult.
“I thought I’d be scratching my head and tapping my feet and frustrated,” said Ruffin, a 53-year-old construction worker. “None of that occurred.”
The nonprofit Enroll America helped Ruffin get coverage in about 20 minutes. The organization saw a steady stream of people seeking assistance Monday.
At a community health center on the west side of Cleveland, about 25 people waited for help with enrollment in the marketplace or Medicaid program on Monday afternoon. Counselors at the health center offered drop-in hours for people seeking coverage and had appointments scheduled until 10 p.m., said Sarah Hackenbracht, executive director of the Cuyahoga Health Access Partnership. The nonprofit organization was assisting with sign-ups and outreach at the health center.
Ohioans shy of projection
The White House and other supporters of the law were hoping for an enrollment surge that would push sign-ups 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.
The insurance markets — or exchanges — offer subsidized private health insurance to people who don’t have access to coverage through their jobs. The federal government is taking the lead in 36 states, including Ohio, while 14 other states plus Washington, D.C., are running their own enrollment websites.
Almost 79,000 Ohioans have picked plans through the exchange from Oct. 1 through March 1, according to the latest enrollment figures from the Obama administration.
That’s far short of the 152,000 Ohioans that the government projected would be signed up by the end of February. The state target set by Obama’s administration for the entire enrollment period is 190,000 Ohioans.
Extensions are available
Cheering on the deadline-day sign-up effort, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spent much of the day Monday working out of the department’s TV studio, conducting interviews by satellite with stations around the country.
Though March 31 was the last day officially to sign up, millions of people are potentially eligible for extensions granted by the administration.
Those include people who had begun enrolling by the deadline but didn’t finish, perhaps because of errors, missing information or website glitches. The government says it will accept paper applications until April 7 and take as much time as necessary to handle unfinished cases on HealthCare.gov.
The administration is also offering special extensions to make up for all sorts of problems that might have kept people from getting enrolled on time: Natural disasters. Domestic abuse. Website malfunctions. Errors by insurance companies. Mistakes by application counselors.
To seek a special enrollment period, contact the federal call center at 855-889-4325 or the state marketplace and explain what happened. It’s on the honor system. If the extension is approved, that brings another 60 days to enroll.
Those who still don’t get health insurance run the risk that the Internal Revenue Service will fine them next year for remaining uninsured. It remains to be seen how aggressively the penalties called for in the law are enforced.