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Two more Obamacare delays: Enrollment extensions for this year and next

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Another day, and two more delays for Obamacare.

The Obama administration on Friday announced two significant extensions of deadlines for enrollment in health policies sold by government-run insurance exchanges including HealthCare.gov.

One extension gives consumers eight extra days, to Dec. 23, to enroll in Obamacare plans that kick in Jan. 1, and gives them until Dec. 31 to actually start paying for those plans.

The other extension delays by one month, to next Nov. 15, the opening of enrollment for insurance beginning in 2015. That extension also will give consumers another week on the back end of that enrollment period, which now will close Jan. 15, instead of Dec. 7.

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The second extension means that many consumers may not see the premium prices for plans until after congressional elections in early November 2014. But administration officials said the delay will give insurers more time to evaluate their first-ever experience offering coverage on the government-run individual plan exchanges, and set their prices accordingly for the next year to reflect that.

Both extensions are reflections of the troubled rollout of HealthCare.gov and a number of other Obamacare exchanges, which launched Oct. 1, and the relatively low level of enrollment those exchanges have seen.

Before Friday's announcement, consumers had until Dec. 15 to apply, enroll and begin paying for plans sold on the Obamacare exchanges for coverage to begin Jan. 1. The end of the open-enrollment period remains March 31, which is the deadline for nearly all Americans to have obtained health insurance coverage from the exchanges, employers, Medicare or Medicaid, or face a tax penalty.

Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman Julie Bataille, who announced the eight-day extension of that enrollment deadline, said Obama administration officials had discussed the extension in advance with insurers.

"We've been in ongoing conversations," she said. "They are aware of this date change, and it's done in consultation with them to make sure consumers could access coverage beginning January 1."

But Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for industry lobbying group American's Health Insurance Plans, said, "It makes it more challenging to process enrollments in time for coverage to begin on January 1."

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"Ultimately it will depend on how many people enroll in those last few days. It is also important to keep in mind that consumers need to pay their first month's premium before their coverage can begin," Zirkelbach said.

Asked about the other extension, of the 2015 enrollment period, Zirkelbach said, "Giving health plans more time to submit premium rates for next year will enable them to better assess who is covered in their plans and help ensure those rates more accurately reflect the population covered."

Meanwhile, the management guru tapped by the Obama administration to fix the software-glitch-ridden HealthCare.gov after its botched launch vowed repeatedly Friday that the site will be running "smoothly for the vast majority of users" by a Nov. 30 deadline he set when he was hired in late October.

That official, Jeff Zients, also guaranteed that anyone who seeks coverage from HealthCare.gov after that date will be able to enroll by the new Dec. 23 deadline as a result of the round-the-clock effort to fix the site.

Zients said those efforts have greatly improved the customer experience on the site in recent weeks.

By the Nov. 30 deadline, he said, the fixes will allow HealthCare.gov to handle at least 800,000 visitors each day, and 50,000 visitors at any one time.

"We are on target for our goal of HealthCare.gov serving the vast majority of users by the end of the month," he said.

To be sure, Zients said Nov. 30 "will not be a magic moment," but nonetheless would show much improvement of the site since last month.

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Zients also said that some would-be enrollees would be better served by using alternate enrollment methods, including in-person assistant centers, a call-in phone number, mail applications and direct enrollment through individual insurers whose plans are being sold on the exchanges.

HealthCare.gov in its first month of operation signed up fewer than 27,000 people for insurance coverage in the 36 states that its exchange covers. More than another 70,000 people enrolled in Obamacare coverage through the 15 exchanges being operated individually by the rest of the states and the District of Columbia.

The extremely low level of enrollment has called into question the administration's goal of enrolling 7 million people in insurance plans sold through the government-run exchanges by 2014.

By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter @_DanMangan

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