tops 1 million visitors; deadline looms

Dec. 23 was original deadline for enrolling on exchange to ensure coverage beginning Jan. 1.

The federal and state health insurance exchanges were as busy as the malls Monday as shoppers rushed to meet the new enrollment deadline of midnight Christmas Eve. surpassed 1 million visitors as of 5 p.m., said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Earlier in the day, more than 60,000 people hit the landing page when it was too busy to accommodate them, and left an email address so they could be alerted when the site wasn't busy, Bataille said.

The deadline for Jan. 1 coverage was Monday, but because of high demand and to ensure everyone who attempts to sign up can, Bataille announced people would be able to enroll Dec. 24, as well.

"If you want insurance starting January 1, you should sign up today," she said Monday. "But if you have trouble due to high demand, we will make sure we help you get signed up."

"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 Jan. 1," she said.

The move was "too little too late," for the 70,000 insurance brokers racing to sign up clients for insurance on the exchange, said Jessica Waltman, the top lobbyist for the National Association of Health Underwriters. She said brokers who were working nonstop to meet the Dec. 23 deadline learned from the media that the deadline was extended.

President Obama signed up for a bronze plan over the weekend, as well. Of course, he didn't have to sit on hold waiting for a call center representative. His staff signed him up on the D.C. health exchange, said a White House official who wasn't authorized to discuss the issue and requested anonymity. The move was a symbolic one as the President "is one of the 85% of Americans who gets his health insurance through his employer and, like previous presidents, is privileged to receive health care from the military," the official said.

HHS had already programmed its systems to support Jan. 1 coverage for those who attempt to complete their enrollment through the end of the day Tuesday in anticipation of heavy online traffic or other technical issues. Insurers said they did not receive official word of the change, although HHS said the move was made in consultation with the industry so consumers could be well-served. The agency called it a concept similar to Election Day, when those in line when the polls close still get to vote.

Insurers said they'd be standing by to help.

"Health plans will continue to do everything they can to help consumers through the enrollment process and mitigate potential confusion or disruption caused by all of these last minute changes to the rules and deadlines," said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans.

Last week, insurers announced they were voluntarily extending the payment deadline to Jan. 10 "to provide greater peace of mind for consumers purchasing coverage through the new marketplaces," said Zirkelbach.

Peter Lee's excitement about California's enrollment numbers could be heard over the phone line Monday afternoon.

"It's rockin' and rollin' in California," said Lee, executive director of California's health exchange. "Sunday, we saw 27,000 people go end-to-end through the process."

From Friday to Sunday, 77,000 people enrolled in private plans, he said. Enrollment through the exchange in private plans now tops 400,000.

"We Americans generally leave things to the last minute, whether it's taxes of midterm reports," he said. "But the good news is, it means they've heard the message."

The volume on the website did, however, cause it to slow down, and pages may take five or six seconds to load, he said. California is not extending its deadline until Tuesday.

"If for any reason our system doesn't work today, we'll get you there," he said. "Some people, we may help them on Thursday. We'll get you across the finish line."

Insurance shoppers were rallying to meet the deadline in other states too:

•Illinois saw its exchange numbers jump way up over the weekend, said Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Sabrina Miller. During the first weekend of December, the state's call center received 222 calls. Saturday and Sunday's call center numbers increased to 1,625. They've had a total of 292,229 visitors as of Monday, up 11,894 since Friday.

•New York's numbers also increased significantly, up to 421,949 completed applications, 137,783 enrolled in private plans and 51,763 enrolled in Medicaid. As of Dec. 16, the numbers were: 363,258 had completed an application; 95,196 had enrolled in a private plan; and 39,426 had qualified for Medicaid.

•Washington's exchange spokeswoman, Bethany Frey, said things went "really well" over the weekend. Though she didn't have complete numbers for the weekend, she said the site's staff reported "very busy weekend traffic." Friday, 30,000 people visited the state website.

In Carlisle, Pa., broker Michelle Grochalski was already thankful she had finally shepherded about 18 clients through the arduous process of enrolling on Unless a new client walks in her office Monday, "we are completely finished," she said.

It wasn't easy: While one client took just an hour and half, another took two months to enroll through the exchange. For one applicant, Grochalski said she had to reapply to take a child that didn't exist off their application.

"Tis the season for faith," she laughed.

In the time it took to get 18 people signed up on the federal exchange, Grochalski's office processed 50 other insurance applications for people who didn't qualify for subsidies and Medicare applications. The office will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday and she fears people looking for help from brokers after Monday may be out of luck.

Even though it's been "like Grand Central Station" in broker Elizabeth Gallops' office Monday, she wasn't happy with the decision to extend the deadline. She's hoping to get everyone signed up Monday and will decide by the end of the day whether to open Christmas Eve.

Things were going better Monday on than Friday when there were delays, said Gallops, who works for JBA Benefits of Winston-Salem, N.C. She's learned always to start with a fresh browser window. Monday it took about 15 minutes to get on the site and each client is taking about an hour and a half to enroll, Gallops said.

On the extension, Gallops said, "I'm sure it's a relief for consumers who have been waiting until the last minute, but it is a challenge for those who have to get them enrolled." had record-breaking traffic over the weekend, according to HHS, with more than 1 million visits to the site and 200,000 calls to the call center. Some users experienced long wait times accessing the call center, and others reported difficulties resetting their accounts after becoming stuck in the system when they tried to sign up in October.

HHS said the queuing system seemed to be working smoothly Monday, error rates remained low at .45%, and wait times were minimal.

While that's good news, it's been a long few months for brokers and consumers trying to sign up for insurance, many say.

"I'm glad we could help the people we did. The season is still going to be jolly," said Grochalski. "But there's got to be better ways to get health care for all Americans versus the way they did it."

Contributing: Fola Akinnibi


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