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FRIDAY, Nov. 22, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Consumers who want to enroll in a health insurance plan through HealthCare.gov will get a few extra days to sign up for coverage that will take effect on Jan. 1.
The deadline for buying insurance through the federal health insurance exchange will be pushed from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said during a Friday news conference.
People who sign up by Dec. 23 and pay their first month's premium by Dec. 31 will have coverage effective Jan. 1.
"This extension will allow consumers more time to review plan options, to talk to their families, providers or enrollment assisters and to enroll in a plan," said Julie Bataille, director of the Office of Communications at CMS.
"We understand that technical challenges have made comparing plans more difficult in these first months, and we want to give consumers as much time as possible," she said.
Also Friday, published reports said President Barack Obama plans to delay the second-year start of enrollment for Affordable Care Act health plans. Doing so would let insurers adjust to the demands of the health-reform law and possibly avert premium increases before the 2014 congressional elections.
The second-year enrollment period, previously set to start Oct. 15, 2014, will now start Nov. 15, said an anonymous U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official who spoke with Bloomberg News.
The Oct. 1, 2013, launch of the federal and state health insurance exchanges was intended to be a major milestone in the Affordable Care Act's implementation, offering millions of Americans a venue to compare health plans and enroll in coverage, often with the help of federal subsidies. But with the federally run HealthCare.gov website experiencing troubles from the start, many people have been thwarted from signing up for coverage.
Further complicating matters, millions of Americans with health coverage have been told by their insurers that their plans are being cancelled because they don't meet minimum coverage standards set by the Affordable Care Act. Some of those minimum standards include maternal health care, mental health care and pediatric dental and vision care, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.
HealthCare.gov is being used by consumers in 36 states. The remaining states and the District of Columbia are running their own insurance enrollment sites.
The exchanges are designed to serve as the gateway for enrolling some 30 million uninsured Americans in health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's chief domestic policy achievement.
Under the law, most Americans must have health insurance coverage by 2014 or pay federal tax penalties. It is also designed to protect all Americans from abusive health insurance practices, like being dropped from coverage due to pre-existing health conditions.
During Friday's news conference, Jeffrey Zients, an advisor to the team of consultants working to fix the HealthCare.gov website, said the team was "on track" to have the site working smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of November.
By then, he said, the website will be able to accommodate 50,000 simultaneous users -- the number that the federal government had originally intended to log on at one time.
In addition, the team is working to double the site's overall capacity, Zients said.
"This means the system will be able to accommodate more than 800,000 visits a day from consumers who are seeking information, filling out applications, shopping and enrolling," he said.
Anticipating peak periods when the number of users exceeds that level of capacity, the team is building what Zients called a "customer-friendly cueing system" to send consumers an e-mail message notifying them of better times to come back to the site.
Last week, the Obama administration reported that a disappointing number of people had enrolled for health insurance coverage through the new federal and state insurance exchanges.
Just over 106,000 Americans had enrolled in health plans through the new marketplaces from Oct. 1 through Nov. 2, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. Another 975,000 people had applied for coverage and received a determination of eligibility for coverage "and are currently still shopping for a plan," she said.
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SOURCES: Nov. 22, 2013, news conference with: Julie Bataille, director, Office of Communications, U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Jeffrey Zients, advisor to U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Bloomberg News