WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's health care overhaul was on track to beat expectations with more than 7 million Americans signing up for health insurance by deadline day Monday, government officials told The Associated Press.
The 7 million target, thought to be out of reach by most experts, was in sight on a day that saw surging consumer interest as well as vexing computer glitches that slowed sign-ups on the HealthCare.gov website.
Two government officials confirmed the milestone, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter ahead of an official announcement.
Seven million was the original target set by the Congressional Budget Office for enrollment in private health insurance plans offered through new online federal and state market places created under Obama's signature legislation.
That was scaled back to 6 million after the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov last fall. Several state-run websites also had crippling problems.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans who rushed to apply for health insurance Monday faced long, frustrating waits and a new spate of website ills on deadline day.
At times, more than 125,000 people were simultaneously using HealthCare.gov, straining it beyond its capacity. For long stretches Monday, applicants were shuttled to a virtual waiting room where they could leave an email address and be contacted later.
The 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act has been the No. 1 legislative achievement of Obama's presidency.
But after taking the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections, Republicans have voted more than 50 times to revoke or seriously undermine the program, widely known as "Obamacare." Those bills have never made it to the floor in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
House Speaker John Boehner said Monday that Republican lawmakers remain committed to repealing Obama's law.
Since the initial enrollment began in October, millions of Americans have signed up for health insurance through the state and federal exchanges, with many of the policies heavily subsidized to make them affordable for lower -and-middle income people.
Officials said the site had not crashed but was experiencing very heavy volume. The website, which was receiving 1.5 million visitors a day last week, had recorded about 2 million through 3 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT). Call centers have received more than 840,000 calls.
Supporters of the health care law fanned out across the country in a final dash to sign up uninsured Americans. People not signed up for health insurance by the deadline, either through their jobs or on their own, were subject to being fined next year by the Internal Revenue Service, the federal tax collection agency, and that threat was helping drive the final dash.
The administration announced last week that people still in line by midnight Monday would get extra time to enroll.
The website stumbled early in the day — out of service for nearly four hours as technicians patched a software bug. Another hiccup in early afternoon temporarily kept new applicants from signing up, and then things slowed further. Overwhelmed by computer problems when launched last fall, the system has been working much better in recent months, but independent testers say it still runs slowly.
At Chicago's Norwegian American Hospital, people began lining up shortly after 7 a.m. to get help signing up for subsidized private health insurance.
Lucy Martinez, an unemployed single mother of two boys, said she'd previously tried to enroll at a clinic in another part of the city but there was always a problem. She'd wait and wait and they wouldn't call her name, or they would ask her for paperwork that she was told earlier she didn't need, she said. Her diabetic mother would start sweating so they'd have to leave.
She's heard "that this would be better here," said Martinez, adding that her mother successfully signed up Sunday at a different location.
At a Houston community center, there were immigrants from Ethiopia, Nepal, Eritrea, Somalia, Iraq, Iran and other conflict-torn areas, many of them trying anew after failing to complete applications previously. In addition to needing help with the actual enrollment, they needed to wait for interpreters. Many had taken a day off from work, hoping to meet the deadline.
The White House and other supporters of the law were hoping for an enrollment surge that would confound skeptics.
The insurance markets — or exchanges — offer subsidized private health insurance to people who don't have access to coverage through their jobs. The federal government is taking the lead in 36 states, while 14 other states plus Washington, D.C., are running their own enrollment websites.
New York, running its own site, reported more than 812,000 had signed up by Sunday morning, nearly 100,000 of them last week.
However, it's unclear what those numbers may mean.
The administration hasn't said how many of the people who had signed up before the weekend ultimately closed the deal by paying their first month's premiums. Also unknown is how many were previously uninsured — the real test of Obama's health care overhaul. The law is intended to significantly reduce the number of uninsured Americans, estimated at about 50 million before the law began taking effect.
The law also expanded Medicaid, the government's health insurance program for the poor, to cover more low-income people, but a 2012 Supreme Court decision that upheld the Affordable Care Act also allowed states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. Nearly half the states, mostly led by Republicans, chose not to expand Medicaid, leaving millions of low-income people uninsured.
Still, about 5 to 6 million people have been added to Medicaid rolls in the states that went along with the expansion. The law also allowed young Americans to remain on their parents' insurance policies up to age 26, providing coverage to an estimated 3 million people.
Though March 31 was the last day officially to sign up, millions of people are potentially eligible for extensions granted by the administration.
Those include people who had begun enrolling by the deadline but didn't finish, perhaps because of errors, missing information or website glitches.
The administration is also offering special extensions to make up for all sorts of problems that might have kept people from getting enrolled on time: Natural disasters. Domestic abuse. Website malfunctions. Errors by insurance companies. Mistakes by application counselors.
The law's supporters are already trying to make the next open enrollment season, staring Nov. 15 more consumer friendly.
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