WASHINGTON -- Millions of Americans could get extra time to enroll for taxpayer-subsidized coverage this year under President Barack Obama's health care law. That would let the administration boost sign-ups and aid Democrats under attack over the program's troubles.
The Health and Human Services Department Wednesday posted two documents that outline "special enrollment periods" for broad groups of people trying to access the new online health insurance markets.
Those who've started an application, but weren't able to finish before the March 31 open enrollment deadline, would get a limited amount of time to sign up for coverage that would take effect May 1.
Additionally, people with 10 general categories of "special" circumstances would also get extra time to apply -- up to 60 days. Categories include natural disasters, system errors related to immigration status, computer error messages due to technical difficulties, family situations involving domestic abuse, and other sorts of problems.
"We won't close the door on those who tried to get covered and were not able to do so through no fault of their own," Julie Bataille, communications director for the health care rollout, told reporters.
She deflected repeated questions on whether there is a hard deadline beyond which the administration won't take applications.
Special enrollment periods are allowed under the health law, and standard for workplace insurance. But they are mainly used to accommodate changes in life circumstances, such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child or job loss.
The latest tweaks to health overhaul rules drew immediate scorn from Republicans committed to repealing "Obamacare."
"The administration has now handed out so many waivers, special favors and exemptions to help Democrats out politically ... it's basically become the legal equivalent of Swiss cheese," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The administration announcement added to a perception of disarray that has dogged the health care overhaul from its early days. It also raised concerns about the potential for another round of technology problems like the ones that paralyzed HealthCare.gov after its Oct. 1 launch.
Several factors seemed to be involved:
• Concern about turning away millions of people belatedly trying to enroll this week. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 6 in 10 uninsured people were unaware of the March 31 enrollment deadline, and half said they didn't plan to get coverage. It can take several visits to the website to finish an application, even without technical glitches.
• Millions of consumers may still be getting tangled up in the complicated enrollment process. The administration's own numbers show that only about half of the people deemed eligible to enroll through March 1 actually went all the way through to signing up. More than 4 million people either abandoned their applications or may still be trying to muddle through.
• Obama himself has been leading a last-minute drive to persuade Hispanics to sign up. The nation's largest minority -- with the highest uninsured rate of any race or ethnic group -- has been on the sidelines and risks being left behind. Traffic on the Spanish-language sign-up site is up markedly, more than 200,000 visits from Sunday through midday Wednesday -- half again as many during the same period a week earlier.
The White House is scrambling to meet a goal of 6 million sign-ups for subsidized private health insurance for people who don't have coverage on the job. HealthCare.gov got 1.2 million visits Tuesday, and officials say the site is holding up well under the added demand.
"Since the traffic started to climb, we have seen only minor issues, all of which have been addressed rapidly," said Kurt DelBene, a tech executive brought in to oversee the website.
Independent testing by Detroit-based Compuware has found that HealthCare.gov runs slowly when compared to other health insurance industry websites.
Officials said the grace period for people who've started applications by March 31 will be available on the honor system.
"It is important to recognize that this is an official federal application," said Bataille. "Most people are truthful when applying for these benefits."
How long the extension will last seems to depend on individual circumstances. HHS said it will process paper applications received by April 7. Those applying online may have more time, until April 15, the same as the tax filing deadline. People who are due tax refunds may be willing to put some of that money toward health care premiums.
The sign-up extension and the special enrollment periods follow other delays, most significantly of the law's requirements that medium- to large-sized businesses provide coverage or face fines.
Republicans are making repeal of the health care law their rallying cry in the fall congressional elections. If the various extensions succeed in boosting enrollment, that would help Democratic candidates, including politically vulnerable senators who voted for the law's passage in 2010.
The next open enrollment period isn't until Nov. 15, after the elections. Providing an option for sign-ups prior to that could give Democrats a rebuttal during the height of the campaign season that focuses on their efforts to fix the law's problems, rather than scrapping it.
The White House had signaled last week that a grace period of some sort was in the works. Officials compare it to the Election Day practice of allowing people to vote if they are in line when the polls close.
The administration's actions primarily affect the 36 states where the federal government is taking the lead on sign-ups. But the 14 states running their own websites are likely to follow, since some had been pressing for an extension on account of their own technical problems.