Applicants Flood Obamacare Websites as 2016 Deadline Nears

WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau/TNS) -

Federal and state health officials are scrambling to handle a record surge of Americans applying for health coverage on healthcare.gov and other insurance marketplaces ahead of a key deadline to enroll for 2016.

Demand was so high that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the healthcare.gov marketplace in 38 states, made some consumers wait several minutes before they could log in and select health plans.

Some who telephoned federal call centers were asked to leave their contact information so officials could call them back and complete their application after Tuesday’s deadline.

The federal call center handled nearly a million calls Monday, making it the biggest non-deadline day in the three years of the marketplace, according to the health agency.

The 2016 open-enrollment period — the third since marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act began offering coverage in 2014 — is scheduled to run until the end of January.

But consumers who want coverage to begin Jan. 1 must select a plan by 3 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday.

Lori Lodes, a spokeswoman for HealthCare.gov, said consumers who have tried to enroll by the deadline will get coverage even if they have not been able to complete the process.

“Consumers should not worry,” Lodes said. “We will make sure that if you are trying to enroll by the deadline — either by contacting the call center or visiting healthcare.gov — you will be able to get coverage that starts on Jan. 1.”

The law allows Americans who don’t get health benefits at work to shop among plans on state-based marketplaces operated by the federal government or by the states themselves.

Consumers making less than four times the federal poverty level — about $47,000 for a single adult or $97,000 for a family of four — qualify for subsidies.

Insurers must provide a basic set of benefits and cannot turn away consumers even if they are sick.

In California, the nation’s largest state-run marketplace, officials also were reporting a flood of consumers seeking coverage.

“Once again, Covered California is seeing an incredible surge of interest, and thousands of people are enrolling at storefronts, insurance agent offices and community centers across the state every day,” Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee said.

In Minnesota, which also operates its own marketplace, officials extended the deadline, announcing that consumers could sign up for 2016 coverage until Dec. 28.