The Obama administration preached patience Wednesday as it tried to rebound from the wobbly debut of online insurance markets tied to the health care reform law, saying technical flubs on the websites designed to help uninsured Americans find coverage were caused by heavy traffic and not design flaws.
Slow Web service continued to plague the exchanges that form the foundation of the Affordable Care Act more than 24 hours after their Tuesday morning launch. It was a problem Republican critics pounced on as a sign that their fears had been well-founded.
"The rollout of this thing made a trip to the DMV look like a good time," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Wednesday.
The online exchanges, a key pillar of the health care law, allow consumers without employer-based coverage to shop for private health care plans, often with reduced cost through income-based government subsidies. Administration officials hope to enroll 7 million people on the exchanges by the end of open enrollment on March 31.
Several state-run exchanges gushed over successful enrollments, but the New York State Department of Health warned users that its site was besieged with millions of visitors and Covered California shut down its site for maintenance Tuesday night.
An unexpectedly high number of visitors jammed up the federal website, HealthCare.gov, raising questions about the administration's preparedness after three years of touting Obamacare.
The Department of Health and Human Services urged consumers who attempted to log on to the site to stick it out if a "holding page" popped up, and that users should refrain from refreshing the page or navigating away because they would lose their spot in line.
The website, which handles enrollment among the 34 states that opted not to set up their own exchange, received 4.7 million unique page visits in its first 24 hours of operation, the agency said.
"The American people are hungry to get covered with health insurance," said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and a key author of the law.
But service disruptions, should they continue, could spell trouble as the calendar nears a Dec. 15 cutoff for consumers who want to be insured by January — the month all Americans must have some form of health coverage or face fines under the health care law's individual mandate.
"I think, if anything, this means they will be more prepared for the next dates since the consequences of another failure would be very bad for PR purposes," said I. Glenn Cohen, a health policy specialist at Harvard Law School.
[Revised paragraph:] The law does not penalize people who have been uninsured for less than three consecutive months, so consumers technically have until Feb. 15 to enroll in coverage without flouting the individual mandate, said Timothy Jost, a specialist in health care law at Washington and Lee University School of Law who has testified before Congress in support of the law.
Insurance is sold monthly, so currently uninsured Americans will have to gain coverage by March 1 to avoid the three-month threshold — leaving the mid-February cutoff.
"I think people are going to have plenty of time," Mr. Jost said.
The fine for flouting the mandate in 2014 is relatively low, at $95 or 1 percent of household income, whichever is greater. However, the tax penalty will increase to $695 of 2.5 percent of income by 2016.
For now, the law's advocates are facing down a string of glitches by pushing a simple message — it's early, folks.
"There are something like 180 days left for people to enroll," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "And anybody who experienced difficulties or delays in getting on the site yesterday or browsing or enrolling should know that they can enroll anytime from today through December and still have their insurance kick in on January 1st."
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