By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, Dec 24 (Reuters) - The main website for enrollment under President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law has drawn nearly 2 million visits, officials said Tuesday, in a last-minute rush to meet an ever-flexible deadline for people to obtain insurance coverage starting Jan. 1.
Citing high traffic to the HealthCare.gov website and at call centers before Monday's sign-up deadline, the government allowed people an extra day to complete their enrollment in time to be covered by New Year's Day. In a blog post on the website on Tuesday, the administration suggested additional flexibility, without specifying a new deadline.
It was the administration's latest move of the goalposts as it tries to recover from technical failures and political missteps that dogged the enrollment drive for weeks after it opened on Oct. 1. Trying to make up for lost time, the administration has announced a series of last-minute changes and delays to get as many people as possible covered under the Affordable Care Act, Obama's major domestic policy initiative.
Before Monday's rush, more than 1 million people had signed up for private coverage through HealthCare.gov - which serves 36 states - and 14 state-run marketplaces, according to state and federal estimates.
The figure, though likely to climb by Christmas, is still short of previous estimates that 7 million people could enroll by the end of March, the last date to obtain health insurance coverage in 2014. About one-third or more will need to be young, healthy adults whose payments into the system would help offset the costs of covering older, sicker people.
"Sometimes despite your best efforts, you might have run into delays caused by heavy traffic to HealthCare.gov, maintenance periods, or other issues with our systems that prevented you from finishing the process on time," Tuesday's blog post on HealthCare.gov said. "If this happened to you, don't worry - we still may be able to help you get covered as soon as January 1."
MINIMIZING THE CONFUSION
The problematic rollout of the health law known as Obamacare, which was passed in 2010 and survived legal challenges, helped send Obama's popularity ratings to record lows and stepped up Republican efforts to gut the law and use it against Democrats in 2014 congressional elections.
The more recent changes, which the administration has said are intended to show flexibility, have introduced a new element of confusion for consumers as well as the health insurance companies who have been pressed by the government to allow new members to pay, and even sign up, past Jan. 1 for retroactive coverage. So far the industry has agreed to extend the first payment deadline to Jan. 10.
"Health plans will continue to do everything they can to help consumers through the enrollment process and to mitigate potential confusion or disruption caused by all of these last minute changes to the rules and deadlines," said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for American's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade and lobbying group.
The Affordable Care Act requires most Americans to be enrolled in coverage by March 31 or face penalties that start at $95. This week's deadline, which had already been moved to Dec. 23 from Dec. 15, applied to coverage starting on Jan. 1.
Last week, the administration said people whose plans were canceled because they did not meet new standards of coverage under the law would qualify for a "hardship" exemption that allows some people to avoid a penalty for not signing up for health insurance.
Several state-run exchanges have also moved their enrollment deadlines. New York and California, two of the largest, added a one-day grace period similar to the federal insurance marketplace. Massachusetts said on Tuesday it would allow sign-ups until Dec. 31 given heavy volume and technical problems that have hampered its exchange. Rhode Island, Oregon and Maryland had already extended their deadlines beyond Christmas. (Additional reporting by Michele Gershberg in New York; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Grant McCool)