Consumers who waited until the last day to enroll for insurance on the federal HealthCare.gov were out of luck on Monday morning, and the problem still may not be fixed: The tools to set up new accounts and enroll are functioning erratically and some people can't even get onto the site to try to set up an account.
Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said the tech team monitoring HealthCare.gov identified an issue with users creating new accounts, a problem agents were reporting earlier in the day and USA TODAY found when reporters tried to create accounts.
At noon Peters said the application and enrollment tools were unavailable to new users. "The tech team is working to resolve the issue as quickly as possible," she said.
At shortly after 1 p.m. it appeared the situation had improved somewhat and some newcomers were able to set up accounts, though some reported being sent immediately to the virtual waiting room. Meanwhile, the rest of the site was still fully operational for users already in the system, so they could complete enrollment, Peters said.
Peters said there was a record number of people trying to use the site as of noon -- more than 100,000 people were on the site at the same time, she said.
HealthCare.gov was down briefly early Monday, but the White House said it was for extended maintenance to deal with heavy traffic on the last day of open enrollment for 2014.
No one questioned whether traffic was heavy, but many say the federal site had bigger issues.
In Pennsylvania, agent Angie Surra of St. Mary's Insurance said the site was so glitchy "you can't get anything done." A big problem: Surra couldn't set up a new account for a client. The first time she tried, it wouldn't let them log in. After a password reset, the site locked her out and she had to send the client home. It reminded her of the site's glitchy first days last October.
Several USA TODAY reporters had the same problem when they tried to set up new accounts on Healhcare.gov. A call center recording said callers would be contacted in five to seven days.
Surra said her plan today is "to try at periodic intervals during the day to see if we can get any further and then call (her client) back in."
In Monroe, La., agent Roanita Jenkins faced a nearly identical problem. After the site told her an account was successfully created, it told her it wasn't valid. After an hour on the phone, even a call center representative couldn't get the application started, Jenkins said.
"Without the site showing the account has been created on their end, we are not able to log in and submit an application," said Jenkins. "The only way to submit an application is over the phone with .gov and that isn't working very well, either."
Bob Ziff, an agent in Morrisville, Pa., said his office helped about 200 people enroll in the exchange. He says the system worked "reasonably well until Sunday" when they started getting the message that the site was overloaded. Since Monday morning, he has only been able to enroll one person due to the site's problems.
At one point Monday morning, the site told visitors that it was "down for maintenance" and asked people to "please try again later." At midday, the site showed a message saying the site had a lot of visitors and needed shoppers to wait in a virtual waiting room until they could be connected.
Administration spokesman Aaron Albright said the website undergoes "regular nightly maintenance" during off-peak hours and that period was extended Monday because of a "technical problem."
He did not say what the problem was, but a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services called it "a software bug" unrelated to the volume of prospective applicants.
Midnight Monday is the deadline for open enrollment and the last chance to avoid a penalty for not purchasing insurance in 2014, which will be due with federal income taxes next April.
The administration recognized there would be site problems as the deadline neared and agreed to extend the deadline for those who have issues signing up.
Administration officials said interest was surging as the deadline neared. The Department of Health and Human Services announced 2 million visits over the weekend to HealthCare.gov. Last week, the call center handled a record 2.5 million calls, surpassing the 2.4 million it received during the entire month of February.
Insurance agents say they are seeing a last-minute crush of people trying to enroll.
"My phone is ringing off the hook," says Ronnell Nolan, CEO of Health Agents for America, which represents insurance agents. "People are waiting until the last minute."
All that interest may be coming at a cost, however, at least for the late-comers to the site.
"It's very unfortunate that on the last day of open enrollment that the website is not working," Surra said.
HHS acknowledged it was experiencing longer telephone wait times and said people could leave their information and be contacted for a better time to come back so they didn't have to remain on hold.
Callers to the 800 number Monday were greeted with this message: "If you've already called and left your telephone number for us to call you back, don't worry. We're holding your place in line and we'll contact you after April 1 and help you finish enrolling. You will still get coverage for 2014."
Contributing: Aamer Madhani, Alicia McElhaney