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Obamacare traffic jam marks final day to sign up

| Monday, March 31, 2014, 11:33 p.m.
Signups for Affordable Care Act health plans in Pennsylvania are on pace with previous years' open enrollment periods, according to federal data released Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017.
Tribune-Review
Signups for Affordable Care Act health plans in Pennsylvania are on pace with previous years' open enrollment periods, according to federal data released Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017.
Karolyn Anderson, 24, of Mt. Washington, receives assistance in choosing a health care plan from certified application counselor Christian Fattore at Consumer Health Coalition in Pittsburgh's North side on Monday March 31, 2014.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Karolyn Anderson, 24, of Mt. Washington, receives assistance in choosing a health care plan from certified application counselor Christian Fattore at Consumer Health Coalition in Pittsburgh's North side on Monday March 31, 2014.

The last day to apply for insurance coverage under President Obama's signature health law was reminiscent of the opening day six months ago, with a software problem and a surge of uninsured individuals hampering access to the online marketplace.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans waited until Monday's deadline to apply for coverage, looking to get health insurance and to avoid tax penalties, and many faced long delays as high demand led officials to turn on a virtual waiting room where procrastinators were put on hold.

Officials said the site had not crashed but was experiencing very heavy volume. The website, which averaged 1.5 million visitors a day last week, recorded about 1.6 million through 2 p.m.

More than 125,000 people at a time were shopping online Monday, the Obama administration reported.

The website stumbled early in the day, as well. It was out of service for nearly four hours as technicians patched a software bug, and came back up about 9 a.m.

Although the wait times may have been frustrating for last-minute enrollees, the flood of traffic was likely to result in Obamacare exceeding a goal of signing up 6 million people for coverage by March 31. Officials initially wanted 7 million sign-ups, but the disastrous rollout of HealthCare.gov in October and November tempered expectations.

Officials set up the virtual waiting room in December so the site wouldn't be overwhelmed when traffic exceeded more than 100,000 users at one time.

Karolyn Anderson, 24, of Mt. Washington was one of the last-minute shoppers. She sought help from a certified application counselor at the Consumer Health Coalition in the North Side, and waited about 45 minutes before Healthcare.gov allowed her to set up an account.

“I wasn't really looking forward to it. I have a lot of expenses already,” Anderson said of her procrastination. “I don't have the need to go to the hospital all the time.”

In Western Pennsylvania, trained counselors reported being busier than normal.

The Consumer Health Coalition, a nonprofit social services organization, employs five counselors trained to guide people through the online sign-up process, and all were fully booked with appointments, Executive Director Beth Heeb said.

Hundreds of calls temporarily crashed the coalition's phone system, Heeb said.

Many observers weren't surprised that it would take a deadline to push people to act.

“We figured that would happen,” Karen Wagner, community support services coordinator for Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania, said of the surge.

The nonprofit organization, which employs trained sign-up counselors, held an enrollment event on Friday that attracted four times more participants than one a month earlier. On Monday, Wagner said she was receiving more calls and emails than normal as people sought last-minute help navigating the website.

“Anyone who works in social services wasn't surprised by this,” she said.

The White House and other supporters who had predicted an enrollment surge right before the deadline were hoping that it would push sign-ups in the health insurance marketplaces to about 6.5 million people nationally.

But total enrollment isn't the only measure of success. People need to pay their first premium to complete the process, and some estimates in January showed that about 20 percent of enrollees hadn't paid and lost coverage. Success of the law also depends on lowering the number of uninsured Americans. The Obama administration still hasn't said how many people who have signed up for coverage had health plans that were canceled because they don't meet the law's robust coverage requirements.

The Department of Health and Human Services has said nearly 160,000 Pennsylvanians signed up for coverage through March 1. The Obama administration estimated that it'd get 206,000 sign-ups in Pennsylvania through the end of March.

Although 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.

The insurance markets offer subsidized private health insurance to people who don't have access to coverage through their jobs.

Anderson, who works two part-time, minimum-wage jobs, said she didn't like being forced to buy health insurance because she is healthy and struggling to cover all her bills. Obama administration officials in the past month have worked hard to reach Americans like Anderson — so-called young invincibles — because they are needed to help balance sick and elderly people in the risk pool. Only about a quarter of sign-ups through March 1 were people 18- to 34-year-olds.

Highmark Inc., the state's largest health insurer, said it's been seeing an “increasing number of younger individuals (34 and under) enrolling in coverage.” The Downtown-based insurer plans to release specific enrollment numbers later this month.

Anderson said many of her friends also delayed enrolling. She finally decided to sign up because she didn't want to pay a tax penalty, which in the first year could be up to 1 percent of income.

After viewing plan options, however, Anderson said she was happy to find she could received discounted coverage at about $18 a month. The plan carried an annual deductible of $100 and a limit of $750 a year in out-of-pocket expenses.

“It's definitely lower than I was thinking,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed. Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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