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Big demand for Obamacare as HealthCare.gov customers get breathing room

Source: Healthcare.gov

They're hurrying up — and waiting — to enroll in Obamacare. And many of them now will get some extra time to finish.

Customers scrambling to sign up in insurance plans sold through the federal Obamacare exchange by Tuesday night's enrollment deadline slowed down service on that marketplace's website during the day Tuesday.

Many customers were being asked to remain in an online "waiting room" on HealthCare.gov, which serves residents of 39 states, until their application could be processed.

Because of the volume, the Trump administration will allow HealthCare.gov customers using the site's call center a grace period in coming days to complete their application on that exchange.

"In order to ensure that everyone who contacts us before the deadline has an opportunity to enroll, some callers in the 39 states using HealthCare.gov have been asked to leave their contact information," said a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"Any consumer who leaves the information will be called back and able to complete their enrollment," the spokesman said. "HealthCare.gov is running smoothly and we are not extending the Open Enrollment Period."

The end of that enrollment period if midnight Tuesday, Pacific Standard Time. People who sign up Tuesday will have coverage effective March 1.

That decision mirrored an extension for last year's enrollment deadline granted by the Obama administration in light of the large volume of consumers visiting HealthCare,gov on the last day of sign-ups.

And it came after a number of leading Obamacare advocates earlier Tuesday called for an extension by the Trump administration — which plans to repeal Obamacare and replace it with new legislation.

The nation's second-largest exchange, Covered California, said Tuesday afternoon that it is giving customers in that state who have started an enrollment by Tuesday four extra days to complete the sign-up process.

Minnesota's exchange, MNsure, on Saturday announced a one-week extension to sign up after the state passed new legislation designed to give price relief to customers who don't qualify for federal Obamacare subsidies that lower their monthly premiums.

Under the Affordable Care Act, nearly all Americans must have some form of health coverage for 2017 or face a potential tax penalty that is the higher of $695 per adult, or 2.5 percent of household income.

Tuesday's enrollment deadline is for sign-ups in individual health plans effective this year. After the deadline expires, most people will be barred from enrolling in individual plans, until 2018 enrollment starts next fall, unless they qualify for a waiver.

Lori Lodes, a former director of CMS' communication office, on Tuesday had tweeted that an extension should be granted.

"Whenever there was any sort of issue that prevented people from being able to sign up for health care ... whenever we had an issue that made that process difficult, or consumers weren't able to quickly sign up, we ended up doing an extension," Lodes told CNBC.

"You have to make sure that the site is working to give people reasonable access to sign up, and if they cannot meet that bar, then they need to extend the deadline," Lodes said of the Trump administration.

Lodes' former boss, ex-acting CMS Administrator Andy Slavitt, in an email to CNBC said, "On the day when record numbers of young people sign up, it's a great sign that people want coverage and are queued up."

"It would be good for consumers and smart for the risk pool for the administration to extend the deadline to ensure that all those people get the coverage they're seeking," Slavitt wrote. Young adults are more prone than other customers to wait until the final day of enrollment to sign up.

A risk pool is the pool of insurance customers whose costs from sicker customers are, ideally at least, more than offset by the premiums paid by healthier customers who use fewer medical services. Too many sick customers can lead to losses for insurers, and rising premiums for everyone.

Young adults are much desired by Obamacare insurers because they can lower the financial risk of selling Obamacare plans. But enrollment among that demographic has to day fallen fall short of insurers' hopes.

The head of a leading Obamacare advocacy group, Enroll America, issued a statement Tuesday calling on "the Department of Health and Human Services to allow every consumer who is in the online waiting room or placed in a queue on the telephone hotline before the deadline to complete the enrollment process."

"Despite the political uncertainty around the Affordable Care Act, we've continued to see very strong interest from consumers who want to find quality, affordable health insurance for their families," said Enroll America President Anne Filipic.

"We're gratified to see that strong demand continue into the final day of open enrollment."

Last week, the Trump administration said it was killing ads and other outreach efforts to promote HealthCare.gov.

But the administration soon partially reversed course, and allowed email reminders and tweets to go out to would-be HealthCare.gov customers to encourage enrollment.

As of earlier this month, more than 8.8 million people had signed up for coverage on HealthCare.gov. At least another 2.8 million had signed up in a plan sold on the other Obamacare exchanges, which are run by individual states and the District of Columbia.

Most customers of the government-run exchanges qualify for tax credits that lower the cost of their monthly plan premiums. Those subsidies are available to people with low and moderate incomes.