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January deadline creeps forward

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The new public health insurance exchanges are still fighting technical glitches and system capacity limits today as they reach a major enrollment deadline.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently moved the enrollment deadline for people who want federal exchange coverage to start on Jan. 1 from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23 — today.

The Washington Post is reporting, based on accounts from anonymous sources, that HHS tried to help consumers cope with the heavy traffic over the weekend by setting the system to make midnight Tuesday — not today — the real deadline for enrolling in a plan that starts Jan. 1.

HHS officials were not immediately available to confirm the Post’s account.

If the story is true, the one-day deadline change represents just one of many recent federal exchange plan enrollment changes.

The original Dec. 15 date seemed to be the deadline for both choosing a plan and paying for a plan, and the new, Dec. 23 also seemed to be the deadline both for choosing a plan and paying for a plan.

HHS then said that the Dec. 23 deadline was simply the exchange plan selection deadline, and that consumers would have until Dec. 31 to pay for coverage. HHS said states with state-based exchanges could ask insurers to voluntarily extend the payment deadline for Jan. 1 coverage to Jan. 31.

Insurers announced last week that they had voluntarily agreed to give consumers who choose plans by Dec. 23 until Jan. 10 to pay for Jan. 1 coverage.

Managers of some of the state-based exchanges have also been changing plan selection and payment deadlines.

In Minnesota, for example, managers of the MNsure exchange extended their enrollment deadline one week, to Dec. 31, in part because of complaints about consumers having trouble getting through to the exchange call center.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers seem to have gotten the message that, if they want to have coverage in January, they need to try to sign up now.

HHS reported that, the enrollment website for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchanges it runs, handled more than 1 million consumer visits over the weekend, and that the HHS exchange call centers handled about 200,000 calls.

HHS recently gave the capacity to handle about 50,000 users at the same time, but heavy traffic swamped the site today and forced visitors to wait in a “queue” to get into the coverage application system.

The exchange plan open enrollment period started Oct. 1 and is scheduled to end March 31. To get 2014 coverage after March 31, consumers may have to show they have undergone a major life event, such as a marriage or divorce.

The Congressional Budget Office predicted that 7 million people might use the exchanges to enroll in private exchange plans. President Obama said last week that 1 million people had selected exchange plans as of Friday.

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