- The Washington Times - Monday, December 23, 2013

The Obama administration issued yet another delay to the president’s signature health care law Monday — this time, offering an extra day’s grace period for people to finish signing up to ensure they have coverage Jan. 1, when the mandate requiring all Americans to have insurance takes effect.

It is the latest in a string of White House delays and shifts to make sure Americans do not face a coverage gap after an estimated 5 million to 6 million people lost plans that did not meet the Affordable Care Act’s coverage requirements.

The White House also revealed that Mr. Obama beat the deadline and signed up for a lower-tier “bronze” plan on the D.C. health care exchange in advance of the Monday deadline, a move that is largely symbolic because, as commander in chief, he will receive employer-sponsored health insurance from the military.

President Obama, vacationing with his family in Hawaii, reportedly did not sign up in person, even though the D.C. health care exchange where he registered could not obtain key personal information needed to complete the process. White House staffers did the work for Mr. Obama over the weekend.

The White House made the moves as support hit an all-time low of 35 percent, according to a CNN poll, the latest in a string of sagging numbers for the health care law in the wake of the troubled rollout this fall of the federal and state exchanges designed to sign up millions of Americans for health care coverage.

Government officials and contractors said they made sure that anyone who enrolled on the federal exchange by 11:59 p.m. on Christmas Eve would obtain coverage by Jan. 1, even as the administration insisted the deadline — at least on paper — was Monday.

The administration compared the concept to voting on Election Day: If you’re in line when the polls close, you can cast a ballot.

“We recognize that many have chosen to make their final decisions on today’s deadline and we are committed to making sure they can do so,” said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “Anticipating high demand and the fact that consumers may be enrolling from multiple time zones, we have taken steps to make sure that those who select a plan through tomorrow will get coverage for Jan. 1.”

Although the individual mandate requires almost all Americans to have insurance by Jan. 1, the tax penalty is imposed only on those without insurance for three consecutive months, so nobody will have to pay the fine immediately.

Instead, the Obama administration’s most pressing problem is the number of people who have lost their coverage and ended up paying higher premiums on the law’s state-based health care exchanges or could not enroll because the Web portals crashed.

HealthCare.gov, the federal website that serves 36 states, experienced rampant glitches until a “tech surge” led by management consultant Jeffrey Zients fixed many of the problems.

Administration officials said Monday was a record day on HealthCare.gov, with 850,000 unique visits by 2 p.m. Faced with more than 60,000 concurrent users before 11 a.m., it was forced to deploy a queueing system that invites users back to the website when traffic is lighter.

In recent weeks, the White House asked insurers to offer leeway to those trying to find plans but had trouble with the balky websites in October and November. It also said people who face coverage gaps in January may apply for hardship exemptions from the individual mandate or purchase catastrophic-level plans instead of costlier plans on the exchanges.

Despite the White House efforts, polls clearly indicate that Obamacare remains unpopular.

The CNN/ORC survey found that 35 percent support the law, down from 40 percent in November and 41 percent in October. The number who oppose the law because it’s too liberal was 43 percent, up from 41 percent in November and 38 percent in October. Women, considered more supportive of the benefits, also have turned against Obamacare in the most recent polling.

Gallup released a poll Monday that said Americans see the health care law as both Mr. Obama’s biggest success and his biggest failure.

Americans technically have until March 31 to sign up for health care benefits, but the pre-Christmas deadline added significance because of the high number of plans that will be discontinued Jan. 1.

Fifteen state-run exchanges also prepared for the deadline by releasing guidance on how to enroll, glitch-free, and by pushing young people to sign up.

California’s state-run exchange reported Monday that 29,000 people enrolled Friday — its most prolific day so far — and traffic continued to be heavy heading into the deadline.

“If you want to get covered, you need to enroll today, the 23rd,” said Peter V. Lee, executive director of Covered California. “Don’t wait, act now, sign up and get covered.”

Even so, he said, the exchange will work with those who at least started the process Monday to make sure they “get across the finish line” in time.

Minnesota’s state-run exchange sent out a tip sheet advising website users to avoid problems such as adding an extra space when typing a phone number, using an incompatible Internet browser or providing a full middle name instead of an initial.

“Some of the problems people are facing are due to software issues that we are actively working on and will be resolving in the near future, but some of the issues can be resolved at the consumer level by following these tips,” MNsure interim CEO Scott Leitz said.

In the nation’s capital, a project manager for one of the contractors working for D.C. Health Link said his team spoke with young people who dined at Denny’s after leaving nightclubs between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. over the past two weekends — an unorthodox effort that proved successful.

“Typically, the fact that I’m 25 years old, it helps a lot that I can relate to that age group,” said the restaurant’s manager, Jarard E. Farrar.

On Monday, Mr. Farrar festooned the Good Success Christian Church and Ministries with balloons to welcome people from the city’s eastern wards into the church’s enrollment center.

Eric, a 54-year-old D.C. resident who declined to provide his last name, walked into the center and said he wanted coverage by Jan. 1. He consulted with on-site staff after having trouble signing up on the exchange’s website from home.

“It’s not hard — just a little glitch here and there,” he said.

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