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An extra week: Feds extend deadline

People trying to sign up for health insurance on the federal website will get an extra week to sign up and get coverage that starts on Jan. 1, federal officials announced Friday.

It’s the latest acknowledgement that is not working well and that people need extra time to get enrolled in health insurance, although officials also say the website is improving day by day.

“HHS intends to extend the date by which consumers need to enroll in the plan in order to get coverage on January 1st, from December 15th to Dec 23,” said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the website.

The website fell apart as soon as it opened on Oct. 1, providing ammunition for critics of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, who wasted no time. Republican-controlled committees in Congress have launched several investigations and have leaked documents showing that federal officials knew the website likely would not work well when it debuted.

White House and Health and Human Services Department officials have said they knew the rollout wouldn’t be perfectly smooth but say they had no idea how bad the problems were. HHS has since hired outside experts to help fix the site and President Barack Obama appointed his new chief economic adviser, Jeff Zients, to oversee the repairs.

Zients said Friday the site would be able to handle 50,000 users at any given time. “In the capacity we will have by the end of the month, 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,” Zients told reporters on a conference call.

“The system will not work perfectly but it will operate smoothly for the vast majority of users,” Zients added. Officials have defined “vast majority’ as about 80 percent of users, they say many of the remaining 20 percent will have complicated personal situations that will make the site harder to use.

CMS has said 106,000 people managed to get through the complete signup process during the first month on both the state and federal websites. Fewer than 27,000 got all the way through on the federal site.

Other experts believe the site will eventually work.

“Anyone who goes around saying, ‘Aw this is just a website -- how hard can it be’ doesn’t know what they are talking about,’ said Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors. “This is not starting up Amazon .com. This is Manhattan project. This is moonshot type stuff,” Salo told a briefing sponsored by the Alliance for Health Reform.

The website, which the federal government is operating on behalf of 36 states, must connect to the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, state health insurance sites, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.

Contractors helping build it have said they never got a chance to test the site completely before it launched Oct. 1.

States have had mixed results. California says 80,000 people have fully enrolled for insurance on its site. Oregon hasn't enrolled any. On Friday Mila Kofman, who heads up Washington, D.C.'s site, said 565 people have completed the process.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee released more documents Friday that it says show the White House and HHS had “serious concerns’ about the site before it launched. Advocates fear the controversy could eventually derail health reform.

The White House and HHS stress that people have until the end of March to sign up for health insurance and avoid paying a tax penalty for 2014. The White House also moved back by a month the beginning of open enrollment for 2015. It’ll start in November of 2014.