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Santa just gave millions of people a few extra days to enroll in Obamacare in time for New Year's.
Faced with "unprecedented demand" for Obamacare insurance plans, officials Tuesday night extended by 48 hours the deadline for sign up for coverage effective Jan. 1 to customers of both the federal exchange HealthCare.gov and California's state-run health marketplace.
The holiday-season deadline for HealthCare.gov, which serves 38 states, and Covered California, the nation's largest state-run exchange, had been originally scheduled for early Wednesday morning.
The extensions, and similar moves by several other states, including New York and Minnesota, give residents more time to sign up on state-run insurance marketplaces for coverage that kicks in New Year's Day. Insurance plans' coverage typically take two weeks to begin after individuals sign up for them.
The broader deadline to have health insurance for 2016 to avoid paying an Obamacare fine remains Jan. 31.
But recent days on HealthCare.gov and the call center, which officials said were the busiest ever seen on the site, convinced the Obama administrations to grant what is just the latest in a series of sign-up extensions seen in Obamacare's three seasons of enrollments to date.
"Because of the unprecedented demand and volume of consumers contacting our call center or visiting HealthCare.gov, we are extending the deadline to sign up for January 1 coverage until 11:59 p.m. PST December 17," said Kevin Counihan, CEO of the marketplace.
"Hundreds of thousands have already selected plans over the last two days and approximately 1 million consumers have left their contact information to hold their place in line," Counihan said.
He added, "Our goal is to provide access to affordable coverage, and the additional 48 hours will give customers an opportunity to come back and complete their enrollment for January 1 coverage."
Within an hour of Counihan's announcement, Covered California announced its own 48-hour grace period.
"The spike in interest we are seeing in the last few days tells us there is continued demand for quality, affordable coverage," said Peter Lee, executive director of California's exchange. "We have already enrollment more consumers this year for Jan. 1 coverage than we did last year."
Earlier Tuesday, officials said that Monday had seen almost a million calls to HealthCare.gov's call center, the most ever on any nondeadline day over the three years that Affordable Care Act plans have been sold.
"Demand continued to increase during the day yesterday, reaching an all-time high of over 185,000 consumers simultaneously shopping" at 9 p.m. ET on HealthCare.gov, said Lori Lodes, spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Obamacare.
No one is required to sign up for Obamacare, but the 2010 Affordable Care Act penalizes people who go without some kind of health insurance. This year, the penalty for going uninsured rises considerablyover last year.
More than one-third of people who shopped for plans sold on the Obamacare insurance exchange Monday did so using a mobile device, officials said.
"This morning, interest is even higher," Lodes said Tuesday about HealthCare.gov. "Because of this surge in consumer demand, we'll continue to have some consumers wait a few minutes before logging in."
"Yesterday's average wait time was about two minutes. Consumers should not worry," she said. "We will make sure that if you are trying to enroll by the deadline — either by contacting the call center or visiting HealthCare.gov — you will be able to get coverage that starts on Jan. 1."
As with the same deadline last year, some customers are being asked to leave their contact information with the call center, which will then start contacting them on Wednesday to have them finish their applications for coverage.
Other than the close of open enrollment in Obamacare plans, which falls on Jan. 31, the mid-December deadline to have coverage effective Jan. 1 is the time that sees the heaviest volume of traffic at HealthCare.gov and the state-run health insurance marketplaces. Under the Affordable Care Act, most Americans must have some form of health coverage during the year, or pay a penalty that in 2016 will be the higher of $695 per adult or 2.5 percent of household income.
As of more than a week ago, more than 2.8 million people had signed up this year on HealthCare.gov for Obamacare plans that take effect in 2016.
Federal officials have said that they are expecting to have a total of about 10 million people enrolled in Obamacare plans by the end of 2016. That would be only slightly more than the number of paying Obamacare customers now.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, in a blog post Tuesday, wrote, "Have you finished your holiday shopping yet? As you look for the perfect gifts for friends and family, don't forget to give a gift to yourself — affordable, quality health coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace."
"The peace of mind and security that comes with health coverage can make everyone's holiday a little brighter," Burwell wrote. "In fact, if the Affordable Care Act were around for some of our favorite holiday characters, their stories might be a little different."
Her blog post used the Christmas characters of "The Grinch," Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit from "A Christmas Carol," Will Ferrell's overgrown "Elf," and the bandits from "Home Alone," to illustrate how they would have benefited from features of Obamacare plans.
"No doubt Ebenezer Scrooge didn't offer employee benefits," Burwell wrote, "but with the Health Insurance Marketplace and financial assistance, Bob Cratchit and his family could still afford to get covered. More than 7 in 10 returning Marketplace customers can buy a plan for $75 or less a month in premiums after tax credits. And with new protections, Tiny Tim can't be discriminated against because of his pre-existing condition."
Most people who purchased Obamacare plans on government-run exchanges qualify for subsidies to offset the price of their monthly premiums because they have low or moderate incomes.