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Associated Press
Eric Alvarez, 4, plays while his grandparents wait to sign up for health care coverage Monday at a registration site in Sacramento, Calif.

Rocky race to health care deadline

The first six-month window for Americans to gain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act closed Monday with large numbers of consumers speeding to get coverage at the last minute. Some of them encountered obstacles as, the main enrollment website, stumbled on and off throughout the day.

Union halls, shopping-mall kiosks and insurance company lobbies across the country were jammed with people racing to get insurance on the final day before the law required most Americans to choose health insurance or risk a financial penalty.

“It’s like going into the mall on Christmas Eve,” said Brian Lobley, senior vice president of Independence Blue Cross, which set up a “Countdown to Coverage” with extra desks and phone lines in the usually empty lobby of its headquarters four blocks from city hall in Philadelphia’s Center City.

Employees whose jobs have nothing to do with sales were pressed into service, and customers were triaged as they walked in, with priority given to people who had not even begun to shop for insurance before Monday.

In Los Angeles, the local affiliate of the Service Employees International Union began an enrollathon at 5 a.m. and, by the end of the day, had attracted more than 700 people to a lively scene with food trucks, music, and more than 50 staffers and volunteers.

By the time President Barack Obama appeared Monday evening on “CBS Evening News,” he sounded relieved.

“We admittedly had just a terrible start because the website wasn’t working,” Obama said, referring to the site’s rocky beginnings. “But given how gloomy I think everybody’s assessment was back in the middle of November, I’d say that we’re on our way to making sure that no American ever has to go without health care.”

Late in the day, federal officials could not say how many people had signed up. But health officials said that by 4 p.m., 840,000 people had phoned in to a network of call centers across the country – about 300,000 more than the total for any other day since the federal insurance marketplace and 14 similar state ones opened Oct. 1.

The outpouring of last-minute interest reinforced arguments by the Obama administration and its allies, made since the law was enacted four years ago, that it would become popular once Americans had a chance to get the new health plans that it spawned – and, in most cases, with federal subsidies to help pay for them.

Still, as the deadline arrived, fresh evidence emerged that the law, which has set in motion the broadest changes to the U.S. health care system in nearly half a century, remains mired in a wide partisan divide. A new Washington Post poll indicates that three in four Democrats support the law – a rise of 11 percentage points since January – compared with one in five Republicans.

The last day of sign-ups contained an echo of the computer troubles that dominated the early months of the open-enrollment period last fall. During two periods of the day that lasted a total of several hours, was inaccessible to new customers – and early on, to anyone at all.

Such trouble materialized Monday even though Obama administration officials had been mindful of the potential for a last-minute surge.

They had acknowledged publicly that they were uncertain whether could withstand a late rush.

As a result, administration officials decided last week to try to take pressure off the official deadline, saying that anyone who had tried to choose a health plan in the new insurance marketplaces by the last day of March could ask for an extension.

People can claim the extra time through an as-yet-unspecified date in April.

The government will rely on an honor system in which people will simply have to click on a blue screen, scheduled to appear on after Monday, saying that they had previously attempted to enroll.

“I try to tell people: ‘Don’t worry. Just because you can’t get in right now, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to,’ ” said Karla Borders, a manager for enrollment assisters at a senior center in southeastern Wyoming, who spent Monday fielding calls from anxious people.