By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government said it was still processing thousands of sign-ups for health insurance under President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law on Tuesday as Americans made a final rush to obtain medical coverage in time for New Year's Day.
Citing nearly 2 million visits to the HealthCare.gov website and over 250,000 inquiries at call centers before Monday's sign-up deadline, the government gave consumers an extra day to enroll by midnight on Tuesday for January coverage.
It added flexibility by encouraging consumers to contact government call centers if they had started but not been able to finish their applications, without specifying a deadline for completing those enrollments.
"Sometimes despite your best efforts, you might have run into delays caused by heavy traffic to HealthCare.gov, maintenance periods, or other issues with our systems that prevented you from finishing the process on time," read a blog post on HealthCare.gov on Tuesday. "If this happened to you, don't worry -- we still may be able to help you get covered as soon as January 1."
The last-minute changes were aimed at getting as many people as possible insured under the Affordable Care Act, Obama's major domestic policy initiative. The administration has been moving the sign-up goal posts as it tries to recover from technical failures and political missteps that dogged the enrollment drive for weeks after it opened on October 1.
Ahead of Monday, more than 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.
Enrollment data from the final dash was not available on Tuesday, but administration officials cited "amazing interest in signing up for January 1."
"We are taking thousands of calls at our call centers, which remain open until midnight, and we are seeing thousands of visitors complete enrollment online," said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs the HealthCare.gov site.
Americans who wait until after Tuesday to begin the process of selecting a health plan will have missed the deadline for health insurance coverage starting January 1 and will be covered as of February 1, CMS said on Tuesday afternoon.
The New Year's push represents the biggest test yet of the program's ability to draw in enough consumers to make it financially viable. The Congressional Budget Office forecast 7 million people would sign up by March 31, the last date to get coverage in 2014, but HealthCare.gov's problems threw those estimates into doubt.
About one-third or more of those newly insured will need to be young, healthy adults whose payments into the system would help offset the costs of covering older, sicker people.
MINIMIZING THE CONFUSION
The problematic rollout of the health law known as Obamacare, which was passed in 2010 and survived legal challenges, helped send Obama's popularity ratings to record lows and stepped up Republican efforts to gut the law and use it against Democrats in 2014 congressional elections.
The more recent changes, which the administration has said are intended to show flexibility, have introduced a new element of confusion for consumers as well as the health insurance companies that have been pressed by the government to allow new members to pay, and even sign up, past January 1 for retroactive coverage. So far the industry has agreed to extend the first payment deadline to January 10.
"Health plans will continue to do everything they can to help consumers through the enrollment process and to mitigate potential confusion or disruption caused by all of these last-minute changes to the rules and deadlines," said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for American's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade and lobbying group.
"Navigator" groups that have been chosen by the government to help people sign up said they were receiving panicked calls from consumers who mistakenly thought they would be shut out of any coverage in 2014 if they didn't sign up now.
"They think if they don't enroll today they're going to be penalized," said Sandra Luz, lead navigator at the Community Council of Greater Dallas. Luz said the group's office was prepared to stay open late on Tuesday to accommodate more calls and walk-in visits and would work over the holiday week with the exception of Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
The Affordable Care Act requires most Americans to be enrolled in coverage by March 31 or face penalties that start at $95. This week's deadline, which had already been moved to December 23 from December 15, applied to coverage starting on January 1.
"A ton more people are calling in right now, and this is from people who haven't been doing this any earlier. There really are many more people who are just looking at this for the first time thinking, 'Oh my goodness, I need to get this done now,'" said Ari Epstein, a navigator for SER National in Waukegan, Illinois.
He said he worked with one consumer on health plan options until 11 p.m. on Monday.
"What's really taking the most time isn't the issues with the site that I've seen, it's folks who have questions about coverage, and the specifics of any respective plan that I don't have answers for. The wait times for the respective providers can be two hours or two and a half hours," he said.
Several state-run exchanges have also moved their enrollment deadlines. New York and California, two of the largest, added a one-day grace period similar to the federal insurance marketplace.
Massachusetts said on Tuesday it would allow sign-ups until December 31 given heavy volume and technical problems that have hampered its exchange. Rhode Island, Oregon and Maryland had already extended their deadlines beyond Christmas.
(Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner in New York; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)