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Demand for Obamacare insurance plans strongly accelerated in the days leading up to a key enrollment deadline, with the HealthCare.gov federal exchange signing up more than 1 million customers in one week and indications that many more enrollees are on the way, officials announced Tuesday.
By last Friday, total sign-ups on HealthCare.gov for the ongoing open enrollment season had topped 2.466 million customers since Nov. 15, roughly split between new customers and returning ones, officials said.
That tally did not include sign-ups from "an extremely busy weekend" into Monday, the day that HealthCare.gov had set as a deadline for selecting health plans that take effect Jan. 1, according to Andy Slavitt, principal deputy administrator for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Nor did it include several million current HealthCare.gov customers who on Tuesday began being automatically re-enrolled in their existing health plans. Most existing Obamacare customers are subject to automatic re-enrollment unless they switch plans or drop coverage. HealthCare.gov sells health insurance in the 37 states not operating their own insurance marketplace.
The tallies released Tuesday also do not include sign-ups from the 14 exchanges being run by individual states and the District of Columbia. Those exchanges release their data separately, and there are, so far, no official numbers for national sign-ups or other enrollment-related data.
But HealthCare.gov CEO Kevin Counihan said "we know that activity has been very high" on the state-run Obamacare exchanges from late last week. He noted that 10 out of the 14 state exchanges have extended their deadlines, to as late as next Tuesday, for signing up for coverage taking effect Jan. 1.
"The demand is strong," Counihan said, referring to customers on those other exchanges.
Slavitt said that over the weekend and into Monday, HealthCare.gov's call center handled 1.6 million calls from people with questions, or looking to apply and enroll online. There were a million calls on Monday alone.
On Sunday and Monday, the call center took the names of nearly 500,000 people who were interested in enrolling in plans, who now are starting to get calls back to ensure they can have coverage that begins by New Year's Day, Slavitt said.
And "we saw more than 3 million unique users on the website" over the weekend and into Monday, Slavitt said.
"Open enrollment from our view has just begun. It's been a strong start," Slavitt said. "We're very pleased.
"But we very much feel like the next 60 days are critical," Slavitt said, referring to the Feb. 15 open enrollment deadline.
Officials said that from Dec. 6 through last Friday, a total of 1.08 million people signed up for individual plans sold on the federal exchange. That was the best week by far since open enrollment began Nov. 15.
For a person to be officially enrolled in a plan, they must make their first month's premium payments.
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Slavitt said HealthCare.gov was able to easily handle the large volume of users to the website in advance of the deadline. The peak Monday was 125,000 concurrent users, he said.
"We are able to handle even more volume in the coming months ahead," Slavitt said.
But he also said that the heavy volume of users on Monday led HealthCare.gov to activate, for about 90 minutes, an electronic "waiting room" where several thousand visitors were held in a queue before their application or sign-ups could be handled.
Counihan, the HealthCare.gov CEO, said, "We don't have a perfect process," adding that "there's going to be some glitches and bumps" in coming months.
But, Counihan said the site's customer service and technical staff "can smooth it out."
HealthCare.gov, when it launched last year, was a technological disaster. It was so glitch-ridden that it was unable to enroll significant numbers of people for two months. But an aggressive repair efforts left the site working well enough that it began signing up large numbers of people last December, and by mid-April had enrolled more than 8 million people.
However, the number of paying customers drifted down to about 6.7 million in October, right before Obamacare's second open enrollment season began.
The Health and Human Services Department has projected that about 9.1 million people nationally will be covered by Obamacare exchange-sold plans by the end of 2015. That is significantly lower than the 13 million enrollees that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office had projected for that year.
On Tuesday, the Avalere Health consultancy issued a new forecast, saying that it believed that total enrollment will reach 10.5 million people by the end of next year.
However, Avalere Health hedged its projection a big saying, "enrollment could fluctuate up or down by approximately 1 million individuals."
"Based on the initial pace of sign-ups in the first three weeks of open enrollment, Avalere estimates that new enrollment by Feb. 15 is likely to be between 4.5 and 6 million individuals," the company said. "However, based on the 2014 exchange experience, about 16 percent of these individuals may drop out of coverage by the end of the year—either by failing to pay premiums or electing to disenroll. Furthermore, it is unclear what portion of 2014 enrollees will re-enroll in plans for 2015.
Dan Mendelson, CEO of Avalere, said, "Growth in 2015 enrollment is helping to solidify the exchanges as a viable commercial market for health plans and consumers.
"There are still millions of low-income people who will benefit from federal subsidies—an important incentive to drive growth provided they have the information to make informed decisions," Mendelson said.
The ACA authorized the creation of the Obamacare exchanges to help the uninsured and others buy individual insurance plans. Most Obamacare customers receive federal tax credits to help them pay for their plan premiums.