By Roberta Rampton and Sharon Begley
(Reuters) - The Obama administration announced a flurry of fixes to its troubled HealthCare.gov website on Friday that officials said would soon double its current capacity, a crucial step toward getting the system working by a November 30 deadline.
It also pushed back a deadline for people to enroll in insurance plans for 2014 under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act in a nod to millions of applicants who have been unable to sign up because of technical glitches for nearly two months.
The healthcare reform, popularly known as Obamacare, aims to provide health benefits to millions of uninsured Americans. Obama's biggest domestic policy achievement, however, has now become one of the biggest political crises of his presidency as polls show Americans increasingly souring on the reform.
As a result, the administration is in a race against time to fix the website, an online insurance exchange, that is central to Obamacare. People need to make decisions on healthcare plans in December if they want insurance in place by January.
Jeffrey Zients, the troubleshooter named by Obama to oversee fixes to HealthCare.gov told reporters on Friday that the website will soon be able to handle 50,000 simultaneous users - twice its current capacity, and up from fewer than 1,000 in the days after its botched launch on Oct 1.
Some of the technical fixes will allow insurance companies to more easily directly enroll consumers in health plans, a senior administration official said.
The administration will run a pilot program for direct enrollment in three states with large numbers of uninsured people - Texas, Florida and Ohio - and use the results to expand the availability of the "direct enrollment" option.
"We do believe that it's substantial. We're looking at hundreds of thousands of people who we believe may well opt to do this," the official told Reuters.
People needing health insurance by January 1, 2014 will have eight extra days to sign up, officials said. The original deadline for year-end coverage was December 15, but now will be moved to December 23.
With the first enrollment period barely off the ground, the Obama administration also has decided to delay enrollment for the second year of the program to give insurance companies more time to calculate rates, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
The delay will mean consumers will start shopping for insurance for Year Two of Obamacare on November 15, 2014 - more than a week after voters go to the polls for midterm elections, when congressional Democrats are expected to face tough questions about the policy they supported.
"That means that if premiums go through the roof in the first year of Obamacare, no one will know about it until after the election," said Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa.
But Carney rejected any assertion that politics was behind the extension.
"The fact is, we're doing it because it make sense for insurers to have as clear a sense of the pool of consumers they gain in the market this year, before setting rates for next year," Carney said.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, Caroline Humer and Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Fred Barbash, Ross Colvin and Grant McCool)