- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - Millions of Americans could get extra time to enroll for taxpayer-subsidized coverage this year under President Barack Obama’s health care law. That would let the administration boost sign-ups and aid Democrats under attack over the program’s troubles.

The Health and Human Services Department Wednesday posted two documents that outline “special enrollment periods” for broad groups of people trying to access the new online health insurance markets.

Those who’ve started an application, but weren’t able to finish before the March 31 open enrollment deadline, would get a limited amount of time to sign up for coverage that would take effect May 1.

Additionally, people with 10 general categories of “special” circumstances would also get extra time to apply - up to 60 days. Categories include natural disasters, system errors related to immigration status, computer error messages due to technical difficulties, family situations involving domestic abuse, and other sorts of problems.

“We won’t close the door on those who tried to get covered and were not able to do so through no fault of their own,” Julie Bataille, communications director for the health care rollout, told reporters.

She deflected repeated questions on whether there is a hard deadline beyond which the administration won’t take applications.

Special enrollment periods are allowed under the health law, and standard for workplace insurance. But they are mainly used to accommodate changes in life circumstances, such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child or job loss.

The latest tweaks to health overhaul rules drew immediate scorn from Republicans committed to repealing “Obamacare.”

“The administration has now handed out so many waivers, special favors and exemptions to help Democrats out politically … it’s basically become the legal equivalent of Swiss cheese,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The administration announcement added to a perception of disarray that has dogged the health care overhaul from its early days. It also raised concerns about the potential for another round of technology problems like the ones that paralyzed HealthCare.gov after its Oct. 1 launch.

Several factors seemed to be involved:

- Concern about turning away millions of people belatedly trying to enroll this week. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 6 in 10 uninsured people were unaware of the March 31 enrollment deadline, and half said they didn’t plan to get coverage. It can take several visits to the website to finish an application, even without technical glitches.

- Millions of consumers may still be getting tangled up in the complicated enrollment process. The administration’s own numbers show that only about half of the people deemed eligible to enroll through March 1 actually went all the way through to signing up. More than 4 million people either abandoned their applications or may still be trying to muddle through.

- Obama himself has been leading a last-minute drive to persuade Hispanics to sign up. The nation’s largest minority - with the highest uninsured rate of any race or ethnic group - has been on the sidelines and risks being left behind. Traffic on the Spanish-language sign-up site is up markedly, more than 200,000 visits from Sunday through midday Wednesday - half again as many during the same period a week earlier.

The White House is scrambling to meet a goal of 6 million sign-ups for subsidized private health insurance for people who don’t have coverage on the job. HealthCare.gov got 1.2 million visits Tuesday, and officials say the site is holding up well under the added demand.

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