Health care site put to the test as deadline nears

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CHICAGO -- The government's retooled health care website was put to its biggest test yet as record numbers of Americans rushed to beat Tuesday's extended deadline for signing up for insurance coverage to start by Jan. 1.

After a glitch-filled rollout in October, HealthCare.gov, the federal website where people in 36 states can shop for coverage, received 2 million visits Monday, its highest one-day total, the government said. Traffic was not as heavy Tuesday but still high, White House spokeswoman Tara McGuinness said. She had no immediate estimate of visitors, or of how many succeeded in obtaining insurance before the midnight deadline.

"The site is performing well under intense consumer traffic," said Kurt DelBene, a former Microsoft executive appointed last week to take over management of the online marketplace. "With the highest volumes we have seen to date, response time is fast, and the error rating is low."

Error rates were lower than 1 in 200, and pages loaded quickly, in less than a half-second, officials said.

For a multitude of reasons, including technical difficulties with the site or trouble understanding the instructions, thousands of people sought telephone help and wound up waiting on hold on Christmas Eve at the government's call center.

Ian Stewart of Salt Lake City said he and his wife, both students, had been trying for weeks to complete their application on the federal site, thwarted by computer error messages each time. Tuesday morning, while visiting relatives in Colorado for Christmas, they reached a call center counselor who succeeded in enrolling them. The "silver" plan they chose will cost them $241 a month after a cost-lowering tax credit.

"We're relieved that we got it working, elated that we got insurance again and very frustrated that it took this long," Mr. Stewart said.

More than 110,000 people had called the government's help line by Tuesday afternoon, with wait times averaging 27 minutes, officials said. On Monday, the call center received more than 250,000 calls, a one-day record.

Monday had been the sign-up deadline for people wanting coverage at the start of the new year. But the Obama administration pushed back the deadline a day to deal with heavy traffic from procrastinators or those who had been thwarted by the site's technical woes.

"We see this intense traffic as a sign that people are eager for affordable health insurance," said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency in charge of the overhaul.

While there were no immediate reports of any major glitches, the White House said people who can show that they missed the deadline because of website problems may still be able to get covered by Jan. 1 on a case-by-case basis. Those who try to sign up for the first time after the deadline passes can still get coverage, but it won't start until Feb. 1.

The one-day grace period was just the latest in a string of delays and reversals, and critics of President Barack Obama's signature program seized on it as more evidence that the overhaul is in trouble.

"The amazing, ever-expanding deadline? It's clearly a sign of desperation by the administration to do everything they can to increase the number of people signing up," said health economist Gail Wilensky, who ran Medicare for former President George H.W. Bush.

The website went through extensive hardware and software upgrades to make it more reliable and increase its capacity. When the number of simultaneous users reached 60,000 Monday, site operators employed a queuing system that allows people either to wait or give an email address to be invited back later, the government said. More than 129,000 users gave their email. Traffic on Tuesday wasn't heavy enough to trigger the system, the White House's Ms. McGuinness said.

Many states operate their own online marketplaces for buying coverage, and some also extended their deadlines. The insurance industry, too, has pushed back deadlines for payment, with most health plans letting customers pay by Jan. 10 and still get coverage retroactive to Jan. 1.

"With deadlines that keep changing, insurers want to alleviate confusion," said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans. "Health plans are going to do everything they can to help consumers with the enrollment process."

President Barack Obama late last week said more than 1 million Americans had enrolled for coverage since Oct. 1. The administration's estimates call for 3.3 million to sign up by Dec. 31, and the target is 7 million by the end of March. After that, people who fail to buy coverage can face tax penalties.



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