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U.S. scrambles to boost Obamacare enrollment as deadlines loom

A busy screen is shown on the laptop of a Certified Application Counselor as he attempted to enroll an interested person for Affordable Care
A busy screen is shown on the laptop of a Certified Application Counselor as he attempted to enroll an interested person for Affordable Care

By Roberta Rampton and Sharon Begley

(Reuters) - The Obama administration announced a flurry of fixes to its troubled HealthCare.gov website on Friday that officials said would soon double its current capacity, a crucial step toward getting the system working by a November 30 deadline.

It also pushed back a deadline for people to enroll in insurance plans for 2014 under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act in a nod to millions of applicants who have been unable to sign up because of technical glitches for nearly two months.

The healthcare reform, popularly known as Obamacare, aims to provide health benefits to millions of uninsured Americans. Obama's biggest domestic policy achievement, however, has now become one of the biggest political crises of his presidency as polls show Americans increasingly souring on the reform.

As a result, the administration is in a race against time to fix the website, an online insurance exchange, that is central to Obamacare. People need to make decisions on healthcare plans in December if they want insurance in place by January.

People needing health insurance by January 1, 2014 will have eight extra days to sign up, officials said. The original deadline for year-end coverage was December 15, but now will be moved to December 23.

Jeffrey Zients, the troubleshooter named by Obama to oversee fixes to HealthCare.gov told reporters on Friday that the website will soon be able to handle 50,000 simultaneous users - twice its current capacity, and up from fewer than 1,000 in the days after its botched launch on Oct 1.

The website will be able to handle 800,000 people per day by the end of November, Zients said, largely because of more than 300 software and other fixes made to the site in the past seven weeks, and because of a doubling in the system's hardware capacity, which will happen this weekend.

DIRECT ENROLLMENT

Some of the technical fixes will allow insurance companies to more easily directly enroll consumers in health plans, a senior administration official said.

The administration will run a pilot program for direct enrollment in three states with large numbers of uninsured people - Texas, Florida and Ohio - and use the results to expand the availability of the "direct enrollment" option.

"We do believe that it's substantial. We're looking at hundreds of thousands of people who we believe may well opt to do this," the official told Reuters.

Insurance companies worked with the administration to address the technical challenges in the direct enrollment option, said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, a lobby group.

"Getting direct enrollment working will enable health plans to do what they do best, and that's enroll people in coverage," Zirkelbach said.

Greg Thompson, a spokesman for Health Care Service Corporation, which operates health plans including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, said he did not immediately know whether the Texas plan would participate in the pilot project.

"We are looking at a variety of ways that people can have access to enrollment," Thompson said. "We want to make sure it can happen both on and off the exchanges."

DELAY FOR YEAR TWO

Officials were adamant that they have no plans to extend the ultimate deadline of March 31, 2014, the date when people without insurance must enroll in a plan or face a tax penalty.

But with the first enrollment period barely off the ground, the Obama administration also has decided to delay enrollment for the second year of the program to give insurance companies more time to calculate rates, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

The delay will mean consumers will start shopping for insurance for Year Two of Obamacare on November 15, 2014 - more than a week after voters go to the polls for midterm elections, when congressional Democrats are expected to face tough questions about the policy they supported.

"That means that if premiums go through the roof in the first year of Obamacare, no one will know about it until after the election," said Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa.

But Carney rejected any assertion that politics was behind the extension.

"The fact is, we're doing it because it make sense for insurers to have as clear a sense of the pool of consumers they gain in the market this year, before setting rates for next year," Carney said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Sharon Begley in New York; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, Caroline Humer and Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Fred Barbash, Ross Colvin, Grant McCool and Eric Walsh)

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