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Obamacare Deadline Extended For Last-Minute Shoppers

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People now have until Tuesday to sign up for insurance via HealthCare.gov, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced Monday. The previous deadline was Monday for those using the federal health insurance exchanges to secure coverage that will be in place on Jan. 1.

In effect, the announcement represents a one-day extension for people seeking to enroll into coverage for January, although a federal official nevertheless maintained that Monday remains the official deadline. The Washington Post first reported on the change, which is the latest of many maneuvers by President Barack Obama's administration to provide consumers with extra time to sign up. It's also an attempt to minimize the number of individuals who face gaps in their coverage since they hold policies that will be eliminated at year's end because they fail to meet Obamacare standards.

This week's deadline applies to people attempting to sign up for health insurance that will be in place on Jan. 1. The full enrollment period runs until March 31.

“The deadline for signing up for coverage to start Jan. 1 is today. We recognize that many have chosen to make their final decisions on today’s deadline and we are committed to making sure they can do so," Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a written statement. "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.”

Traffic to HealthCare.gov exceeded 1 million visitors before 5:00 p.m. EST Monday, according to the Twitter account associated with the website. That nearly equaled the weekend total of 1.2 million and is more than five times the traffic last Monday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported.

That high demand was evident Monday morning, when HealthCare.gov, the portal to the health insurance exchanges in 36 states, began putting visitors into its queuing system because of high traffic. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said the 11th-hour change to the hard deadline for January enrollments was put into place because heavy use of the website or other technical problems could ensnare people. Health insurance companies were also consulted, the agency said.

"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," Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, said in a written statement.

Enrollments made via the federal system by 11:59 p.m. EST Tuesday will qualify for January coverage, and these consumers have until Jan. 10 to pay their first premium. Individuals using the state-run exchanges in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Nevada, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia must complete their enrollments Monday. Residents of Washington state who begin their enrollments Monday can complete them by Jan. 15 to secure coverage next month. Marylanders and Oregonians can enroll until Dec. 27, while Massachusetts residents, Minnesotans and Rhode Islanders have until Dec. 31.

In spite of the shift to Tuesday for enrollments via the federal system, the Obama administration urged consumers to act Monday. "Consumers should not wait until tomorrow. If you are aiming to get coverage Jan. 1, you should try to sign up today," Bataille said in a separate written statement. Assistance will be provided to individuals who encounter problems with the system today, she said.

Since the end of an intensive weeks-long effort to repair HealthCare.gov, which was largely inoperable on its Oct. 1 launch and problematic through November, the Obama administration has scrambled make up for lost time and facilitate enrollment this month. The deadline for January coverage originally was Dec. 15. Consumers were supposed to pay their first premium by Dec. 31, until the health insurance industry volunteered to accept late payments. And the Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that individuals whose enrollments are jeopardized because of ongoing technological problems may be eligible for retroactive enrollments to Jan. 1 if they miss this week's deadline.

The administration particularly has focused on attempts to prevent people currently covered from becoming uninsured next month because of the failings of the federal exchanges.

Individuals whose policies were canceled because they didn't comply with the new law's benefit mandates are now exempt from the individual mandate to have insurance and may choose bare-bones catastrophic plans previously available only to people younger than 30 or those who demonstrated a financial hardship. Previously, Obama asked state insurance regulators and health insurers to renew the policies that were being canceled, although this has produced mixed results. The administration also implemented a one-month extension of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, a temporary program for people who couldn't get private coverage that was supposed to expire on Dec. 31.

This story has been updated with information on HealthCare.gov web traffic for Monday and with Massachusetts' new deadline, announced Monday. A statement from America's Health Insurance Plans and a new statement from Julie Bataille were also added.

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