(AP/WJLA) - Last-minute health insurance shoppers called help lines and attended enrollment events Monday as a key deadline in the nation's new health law was extended by one more day.
The White House announced the extension at the last minute, giving most Americans until the end of Tuesday, Christmas Eve, to sign up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act if they want their insurance to kick in by January 1.
The Obama Administration has explained that the reason for the change is the anticipation of high demand, despite experts saying officials should have expected an eleventh-hour scramble.
Regardless of the extension, federal officials are urging buyers not to procrastinate.
"You should not wait until tomorrow. If you are aiming to get coverage Jan. 1, you should try to sign up today," said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the federal agency in charge of the overhaul.
Bataille said the grace period - which runs through Tuesday - was being offered to accommodate people from different time zones and to allow for any technical problems that might result from a last-minute rush of applicants.
This is now the second time the White House has pushed back the enrollment deadline, and so far, all indications are that healthcare.gov is working as intended.
With Monday’s large volume of users trying to access the site, an automatic queuing system has kicked in – at times encouraging insurance shoppers to leave their email address and wait to be invited back.
There is still concern, however, about whether enough people – particularly young and healthy consumers – will sign up to make the insurance marketplace work. On Friday, President Obama said a million people have signed up so far. But the Administration’s goal is seven million by the end of March 2014.
While some states postponed the cutoff date, most Americans were required to sign up by Monday night to get coverage starting on Jan. 1. The HealthCare.gov website that had a disastrous, glitch-prone debut nearly three months ago ran smoothly in the morning despite the load, the government said on Twitter.
The original deadline was pushed back a week because of the technical problems that plagued the federal marketplace for weeks after its October opening, but hundreds of upgrades to storage capacity and software have cut error rates and wait times.
"It's just nonstop now. Everybody knows about it. Everybody wants it," said Florida enrollment counselor Madeleine Siegal. She said her organization in Fort Lauderdale was slammed with walk-ins and appointments Friday, had several weekend enrollment events and planned to open its doors earlier than usual on Monday.
Ronald Bellingeri, a 59-year-old general contractor in Florida, signed up Friday in 90 minutes with help from an enrollment counselor. Bellingeri said he waited until the last minute because he didn't know what to do or where to go.
On Friday, he chose a gold plan with a $156 monthly premium. The government is picking up $472 per month because of his income.
"I just walk in the door and an hour and a half later, I have health insurance. It makes me feel great," he said.
Others said they will let the date pass without making a decision.
"I'm in no hurry, though it'd be nice to be able to visit a doctor without stress," said Kyle Eichenberger, an uninsured 34-year-old from Oak Park, Ill.
Eichenberger said he hit a wall on the website when he first tried to enroll. More recently, the 34-year-old stay-at-home dad hasn't had time to get his questions answered. His family situation doesn't fit into a neat category: His children and their mother have health insurance through her job. But her employer doesn't offer coverage to opposite-sex domestic partners, and the couple are not married.
"I'm an Obamacare supporter, though I think it is full of problems," Eichenberger said. "It's better than the system we had before and already helps my kids get free preventive care. I'd like to see the whole system streamlined to be more user-friendly. Keep the basic idea, but don't make me feel like I'm navigating a maze to get a simple checkup."
This past weekend, while the President enjoyed some down time with his family in Hawaii, his staff was busy signing him up for his own Obamacare plan, using the D.C. Health Care Exchange for coverage – not healthcare.gov run by the federal government.
White House staff says the president picked the bronze plan – meaning lower monthly premiums but higher deductibles than the silver or gold plan.
But the gesture was purely symbolic. As long as he is Commander-in-Chief, President Obama and his family receive their healthcare through the military and the always on-call White House physician.
Last week, citing the botched healthcare roll-out, the President said he hoped to use his Hawaii time in the sun to focus on improvements to his signature program:
“The end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see what you can do better next year."
A new CNN poll out on Monday shows support for Obamacare has dropped to its lowest level yet among American voters. And while the extended deadline is for coverage by January 1, March 31 is the deadline to either obtain health insurance or face an end-of-the-year tax penalty.
Minnesota, one of the states running their own insurance exchanges, had long planned a Monday deadline to sign up for coverage starting Jan. 1. But amid problems with its website and extra-long hold times to reach its help center, the state last week postponed the deadline by eight days, letting people sign up through Dec. 31.
Maryland has also extended its deadline, to Dec. 27.
In Washington state, people who got up early on Monday to start their application for health insurance on the state's online marketplace may have been disappointed. The site was down for maintenance until nearly 9 a.m.