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Deadline dash: Final health care sign-ups attempted amid more website glitches

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 31 2014 10:04 p.m. MDT

The administration hasn't said how many of the 6 million people nationally who had signed up before the weekend ultimately closed the deal by paying their first month's premiums. Also unknown is how many were previously uninsured — the real test of Obama's health care overhaul. In addition, the law expands coverage for low-income people through Medicaid, but only about half the states have agreed to implement that option.

Cheering on the deadline-day sign-up effort, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius planned to spend much of the day Monday working out of the department's TV studio, conducting interviews by satellite with stations around the country.

Though March 31 was the last day officially to sign up, millions of people are potentially eligible for extensions granted by the administration.

Those include people who had begun enrolling by the deadline but didn't finish, perhaps because of errors, missing information or website glitches. The government says it will accept paper applications until April 7 and take as much time as necessary to handle unfinished cases on HealthCare.gov. Rules may vary in states running their own insurance marketplaces.

The administration is also offering special extensions to make up for all sorts of problems that might have kept people from getting enrolled on time: Natural disasters. Domestic abuse. Website malfunctions. Errors by insurance companies. Mistakes by application counselors.

To seek a special enrollment period, contact the federal call center, at 1-855-889-4325, or the state marketplace and explain what happened. It's on the honor system. If the extension is approved, that brings another 60 days to enroll.

Those who still don't get health insurance run the risk that the Internal Revenue Service will fine them next year for remaining uninsured. It remains to be seen how aggressively the penalties called for in the law are enforced.

Also, the new markets don't have a monopoly on health insurance. People not already covered by an employer or a government program can comply with the insurance mandate by buying a policy directly from an insurer. They'll just have to pay the full premium themselves, although in a few states there may be an exception to that rule as well.

Supporters of the law held their breath early Monday when the website was taken down.

Administration spokesman Aaron Albright said the site undergoes "regular nightly maintenance" during off-peak hours and the period was extended because of a "technical problem." He did not say what the problem was, but an official statement called it "a software bug" unrelated to application volume.

In Oakton, Va., enrollment counselor Rachel Klein said she noticed the website was running slowly.

"We all came into it understanding that today was going to be challenging," said Klein. "We're all relieved that there's going to be a little extra time for people."

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Monday that Republicans remain committed to repealing Obama's law. But its supporters are wasting no time trying to shape the next open enrollment season, starting Nov. 15. The advocacy group Families USA will announce ten recommendations Tuesday to make the system more consumer-friendly.

They range from providing more in-person assistance with sign-ups, to eliminating premium penalties for smokers, to aligning enrollment with tax-filing season.

Associated Press writers Connie Cass in Washington, Don Babwin in Chicago, Randall Chase in Wilmington, Del., Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston, Michelle Price in Salt Lake City and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this report.

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