officials were eager, during a press call Wednesday, to present a message of readiness for prospective health insurance applicants rushing to sign up by the March 31 open enrollment deadline. Late Tuesday, HHS announced a sign-up extension for anyone who tries but fails to fully enroll by the deadline.
“It's like Election Day—if you're in line before the polls close, you get to vote,” said Julie Bataille, director of CMS' office of communications. She explained that the new extension allows late applicants to attest that they had tried and failed to gain insurance through the exchanges, whether because of faulty technology or a host of other issues.
CMS officials also reviewed consumer demand on the Healthcare.gov website and CMS call centers, as well as the agency's new-found capability to handle that demand. More than 1 million visitors went to the HealthCare.gov
site on March 25 and on March 24 and 25, call center employees received more than 600,000 calls, according to statistics from the officials.
With 14,000 English-language call-center employees, and 800 operators employed by the Spanish-language call center, agency officials boasted that their phone-support capabilities would be able to handle any call crush.
“We continue to perform well in terms of error rates and response times,” said Kurt DelBene, the new coordinator for Healthcare.gov. The website now can handle 100,000 concurrent visitors, he stated. The previous peak number of visitors to the site was 83,000 on Dec. 23.
Should the number of users overwhelm the site's capabilities, users will be placed in a virtual waiting room, where they can be informed by email that the website is ready to handle their request. Otherwise, they can wait to apply later—and attest on their application that technical problems prevented them from completing their application. Their coverage will be effective from the date their applications are completed.
Officials did not say whether there would be penalties for falsely attesting to sign-up difficulties, but Bataille said that she expected the number of false attestations to be low. “People are generally truthful,” she said, when filling out federal forms.Darius Tahir is a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer.