By Susan Cornwell and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Americans scrambled to beat a deadline to sign up for insurance under President Barack Obama's healthcare law, the White House gave most consumers an extra day, until Tuesday, to obtain coverage that starts January 1.
The last-minute move by the Obama administration to accommodate high demand came as it reported record traffic on HealthCare.gov, the federal enrollment website that struggled with glitches after its launch in October.
It was the latest impromptu change the administration has imposed on the healthcare program to address the fallout from a series of technical and political missteps.
Officials said the website received 1.2 million visits over the weekend and had surpassed 1 million additional visits by late afternoon on Monday. They said a call center took 200,000 calls from those seeking insurance under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
The hustle to sign up in time for January 1 coverage could help the Obama administration as it tries to patch up a botched rollout of the president's top domestic policy achievement, a law that requires most Americans to get health insurance or face fines.
Before the Monday rush, well over 1 million people had signed up for private coverage through HealthCare.gov - which serves 36 states - and 14 state-run marketplaces, according to state and federal estimates. The figure, though likely to climb by Christmas, shows how far the government has to go to reach an estimated 7 million people by the end of enrollment in March.
Obama was embarrassed that HealthCare.gov did not work for most people shopping for insurance for its first two months. He also wound up apologizing for promising that everyone who liked their existing insurance could keep it under Obamacare.
The backlash has torpedoed Obama's approval ratings, alarmed congressional Democrats facing re-election in 2014 and given a boost to Republicans opposed to the healthcare law.
The administration instituted a series of "fixes," but the resulting patchwork of exceptions and deadlines has created confusion among consumers and upset insurance companies that fear the mixed messages could threaten the delicate financial formula around which Obamacare is designed.
On Monday, administration officials continued to encourage uninsured and under-insured Americans to enroll in Obamacare by midnight and said those who sign up before Christmas Day would be eligible for coverage starting January 1.
"Anticipating high demand and the fact that consumers may be enrolling from multiple time zones, we have taken steps to make sure that those who select a plan through tomorrow will get coverage for January 1," Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a statement.
She was echoed by White House spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri, who warned that waiting until Tuesday to start enrolling in Obamacare would be risky.
"People should not think that they can get on the website (Tuesday) for the first time and try to enroll," Palmieri said in an interview on MSNBC. "That would be a dangerous thing to do."
In a mid-morning Twitter post on Monday, HealthCare.gov touted "a record day so far."
"Thousands visiting and enrolling now. Queuing deployed to help keep site smooth for users," the post said, referring to a system that sends users to an online "waiting room" when web traffic runs high.
"There is definitely a rush!" said Lauren Banks of AIDS Alabama, part of Enroll Alabama, one of dozens of "navigator" groups that is helping people sign up for coverage. "People lost track of time, and suddenly (the deadline is) here."
Navigator group SER National in Illinois said its Obamacare sign-up events are now attracting hundreds of people compared with dozens in October and November.
SER's navigator program director Zeke Romo said the last-minute shoppers include "a lot of people with complicated medical issues, such as people with children who are on medication" and are worried about a break in coverage if they don't sign up in time for January 1 benefits.
The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires most Americans to be enrolled in coverage by March 31 or face penalties that start at $95. But the enrollment deadline for January 1 coverage is widely viewed as the first real test of the viability of the healthcare overhaul.
The original deadline was extended from December 15 after HealthCare.gov proved dysfunctional. Late last week, the administration added a new category of "hardship" exception that allows some people not to sign up for any kind of health insurance without facing a penalty. The newest exception is designed for people who have had problems signing up with Obamacare after seeing their old policies canceled because they did not meet the law's stepped-up standards of coverage.
States running their own healthcare exchanges were not bound by the latest federal extension. Connecticut, for example, kept Monday as its deadline, while New York pushed back its deadline by one day, to 11:55 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
"Volume is high and the decision was made to extend the deadline to provide consumers more time," said Bill Schwarz, spokesman for the New York State Department of Health. "However, we are not experiencing difficulties such as people stuck in queues."
New York reported early Monday that it had enrolled nearly 137,000 people in private health plans after a surge during the past week.
'ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER DELAY'
Republican lawmaker Fred Upton, a frequent critic of Obamacare, derided Monday's extension as the latest in a string of missed deadlines for the healthcare law.
"Another day, another delay," said Upton, chairman of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee. "As we celebrate Christmas and prepare to ring in the New Year, we continue to ask, 'What's next?' "
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi countered that December has been a good month for Obamacare and predicted the problems will fade with time.
"We'll ride this out," she told reporters. "Having health insurance for many more Americans - as a right for the many, not a privilege for the few - is worth the politics."
Obama himself, on vacation in Hawaii, signed up for a health insurance plan over the weekend, a so-called "bronze" plan that costs less than $400 a month, the White House said. The move was symbolic because U.S. presidents receive healthcare from the military.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Begley in New York and Ros Krasny in Honolulu; Writing by Susan Cornwell and Doina Chiacu; editing by David Lindsey, Michele Gershberg, Cynthia Osterman and Andrew Hay)