More extensions as Obamacare deadline looms

A key deadline for signing up for Obamacare insurance got a bit squishier Monday, as the nation's biggest insurance marketplace gave some slack to customers enrolling over the phone, and several individual states granted all their customers more time.

Monday is the deadline for people in most of the United States to sign up for individual and family Obamacare insurance plans that take effect Jan. 1.

If people don't meet that deadline, or some of the later ones this week set by individual states, they will have to wait until Feb. 1 at the earliest for their insurance to go into effect.

By midday, the federal insurance exchange, HealthCare.gov, which serves two-thirds of the U.S., appeared to be working smoothly, as did a number of other state-run exchanges.

Nonetheless, within hours, a number of state-run exchanges had effectively extended their Monday deadlines in the face of strong demand, among them California, whose marketplace has the largest number of Obamacare enrollees in the United States

California's exchange will give applicants who began the sign-up process by midnight Monday until midnight Sunday to finish enrollment, according to officials. The extension is being granted on the honor system—the exchange won't be auditing applicants to see if they actually met the criteria.

"We know we've got a lot of people in the pipeline," a spokesman told CNBC.com Monday evening. The spokesman noted that in the past eight days, as the deadline approached, Covered California exchange had signed up 42,000 people, which is more than 80 percent of the number of people who signed up in the first two-and-a-half weeks of enrollment.

"We've just seen a real strong surge," the spokesman said.

Monday remained the deadline for signing up online at HealthCare.gov.

But late in the day, the agency that runs that site announced a grace period for people who were trying to start or finish an application or enroll.

"As we have anticipated, we are seeing very high consumer demand on HealthCare.gov and at the call center for people looking to meet the deadline," said a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"Because the call center is experiencing longer-than-normal wait times, some callers are being asked to leave their contact information so they do not have to wait," the spokesman said. "We will call them back at a convenient time starting tomorrow and if they select a plan their coverage will still begin on January 1. Consumers can also shop for coverage and select a plan on HealthCare.gov anytime until midnight Pacific time tonight."

New York's exchange had last week extended its deadline from Monday until next Saturday. The exchange cited snowstorms that slammed the western part of the state recently.

Several other states—Massachusetts, Idaho, Rhode Island, Maryland and Washington—already had extended deadlines as well, to as late as Dec. 23 in some cases.

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Those states got some company as Monday went on.

At Connecticut's state-run Obamacare exchange, "we are seeing very high volume," said Jason Madrak, a spokesman for the exchange earlier Monday,

"As it relates to Web traffic, we typically see between 300-400 concurrent users on our site at any given time on a normal day. Today, we are seeing 750-850 concurrent users," Madrak said in an email. "For call center activity, as of 10 a.m. this morning, we had already seen 4,986 calls come in. To put that in perspective, we had 15,000 calls come in the entire week after Thanksgiving, so we could be poised to handle a week's worth of volume in one day."

By Monday afternoon, Connecticut's exchange announced a "grace period" for applicants.

"If customers have an application started and select a plan before midnight tonight, they can still get coverage beginning Jan. 1, as long as they complete the application and get us all the relevant information by midnight this Friday, Dec. 19," said Jim Wadleigh, acting CEO of the exchange.

Shortly after Connecticut's move, Minnesota's state-run exchange said it was extending its sign-up deadline until 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

We want to give Minnesotans that qualify for financial help as much time as possible to enroll in January 1 coverage," said Scott Leitz, CEO of the MNSure exchange, who added that the extension is not in response to system issues or technical problems.

"TheMNsure system continues to be stable and the vast majority of people coming through the system are doing so without issue," said Leitz. "This change is simply to allow folks that qualify for financial help more time."

The deadline for signing up for health insurance is displayed on HealthCare.gov website.
Source: Healthcare.gov
The deadline for signing up for health insurance is displayed on HealthCare.gov website.

Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of the national industry group America's Health Insurance Plans, said, "we're hearing quite a lot of volume over the weekend" as Monday's deadline loomed.

"I think the plans are feeling very encouraged about what they're hearing from their beneficiaries being able to get through and having the support from the plans that they need," Ignagni said.

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The relatively smooth operations at the enrollment sites stand in contrast to last year, when HealthCare.gov and several state-run exchanges flopped upon launch on Oct. 1, and then struggled to right themselves in time for December's first deadline to get coverage effective Jan. 1.

Even though HealthCare.gov was running much better by December, authorities effectively extended the mid-December deadline several times in recognition of the number of users clogging websites to try and sign up to meet the cut-off date.

Health-care counselors help clients navigate the second round of open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act in Manassas, Va.
Linda Davidson | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Health-care counselors help clients navigate the second round of open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act in Manassas, Va.

"We're so far ahead of where were were last year when nothing worked," said Caroline Pearson, a vice president at the Avalere Health consultancy. "A year makes a huge amount of difference in terms of the consumer experience. We haven't had any significant backlogs."

Pearson said she has been surprised by the number of current Obamacare enrollees who have been actively re-enrolling in coverage. About 52 percent of the nearly 1.4 million HealthCare.gov sign-ups since Nov. 15 have been from existing customers.

"I was expecting it to be extraordinarily low," she said. That's because most current enrollees will be automatically re-enrolled in their current plan unless they choose another option, and Pearson said other health insurance programs with such automatic re-enrollment usually see few people making changes.

However, Pearson said the volume of new customers signing up for Obamacare plans "is down somewhat" compared with last year.

While she expects "another flurry of enrollment" as the Feb. 15 open-enrollment deadline approaches, Pearson expects national enrollment to fall several million people short of the 13 million people projected by the Congressional Budget Office for 2015. Just before the start of open enrollment this season, there were about 6.7 million paying Obamacare customers nationally.

"Last year, we got the easy-to-reach people, so to speak," said Pearson, referring to customers who had been priced out of the market in the past, or who had medical needs that required them to have continuous insurance.

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The harder people to get to sign up, she said, are young people, Spanish speakers, as well as people who aren't aware of Obamacare's mandate that most people have insurance or pay a fine, and don't know that tax credits are available to help people pay for coverage purchased through a government-run insurance exchange.

"There's still a huge amount of ignorance," Pearson said.

Obamacare enrollment starts today
Obamacare enrollment starts today   

But Charles Gaba, a Web designer who has become a leading analyst of Obamacare enrollment data, said, "I'm more confident."

Last week, after HealthCare.gov revealed that nearly 1.4 million people had enrolled in Obamacare since the Nov. 15 start of enrollment, Gaba said, "I went ahead and bumped up my February estimate by about a half million."

Gaba now projects that 12.5 million people will be enrolled in Obamacare plans by Feb. 15. He also expects there to be about 7.5 million people enrolled in time to have coverage effective Jan. 1. For enrollment to be in effect, a customer must make their first month's premium.

"I'm just more optimistic about the new enrollees," Gaba said. "I suspect there's going to be a second big wave in February, just as there should have been over this weekend."

People who don't make that next big deadline may be in for a very rude awakening. Americans who lacked health insurance coverage in 2014 face potential fines when they file their taxes in 2015 equal to $95 per individual, or 1 percent of taxable income, whichever is higher.

"There's some heavier penalties for 2015," said Mark Steber, chief tax officer of Jackson Hewitt Tax Service.

Those penalties will be the higher of $325, or 2 percent of taxable income, per individual who lacks insurance for up to eight months in 2015.

"It's a big penalty," Steber said.

Jackson Hewitt had advised customers last season about their tax exposure if they failed to have insurance, and the company also had partnered with Web-based insurance broker Getinsured.com to provide enrollment services for people who wanted to sign up for coverage. But not many people took advantage of the opportunity to sign up, Steber said.

"This year, we're expecting a great deal more interest," he said.

That's because the penalty for lacking coverage in 2014 only goes into effect this coming tax season, and because people may have talked to others who received subsidies, or tax credits that helped them pay for premiums.

Most Obamacare customers qualify for that subsidy assistance, which is available to people who earn between one and four times the federal poverty level.

"That's always a pleasant discussion," said Steber, referring to the moment when tax preparers tell people how much they can receive in subsidies.