(Updates with new website error in first paragraph.)
March 31 (Bloomberg) -- A computer error stalled the federal government’s Obamacare enrollment site today as record numbers of visitors tried to sign up before a midnight deadline.
The first annual enrollment period under the health law ends today, with early returns suggesting the Obama administration may approach the 7 million sign-ups it expected before the U.S. health exchange website, healthcare.gov, faltered when it opened in October. Technology trouble returned about midday today, preventing new customers from starting the enrollment process as more than 100,000 people at a time tried to use the site to purchase a health plan.
“The issue has now been fixed,” Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in an e-mail. “All functionality is back up,” she said in a Twitter post.
The rollout of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, has been under constant attack from Republican foes and faced a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed states to limit the expansion of Medicaid, the government program for the poor. The law targeted the nation’s 48 million uninsured, relying in large part on online marketplaces to sell individual and family health plans to people not covered at work or in a government program.
The federal website, which covers 36 states, suffered from myriad technical flaws that made it unusable for more than a month. Several states with their own websites also had technical issues that slowed enrollment.
Traffic on the federal website site today was triple the volume on Dec. 23, the previous busiest day the government had seen, Peters said, adding that 1.2 million people had visited healthcare.gov by noon New York time. For a time today, visitors were met by a screen for a queuing system, inviting them to enter an e-mail to be contacted later when traffic subsides.
Under the law, enrollment ends at 11:59 p.m. New York time for the states served by healthcare.gov. Those who don’t sign up face a fine of as much as 1 percent of their annual income.
Federal officials say that anyone who attempts to use the site or apply for 2014 coverage today will be able to complete enrollment later this month.
The government last week said 6 million Americans had enrolled by March 27, and today reported that 2.9 million people visited healthcare.gov over the weekend. The sign-ups met a mark set by the Congressional Budget Office in February that was trimmed from an initial 7 million estimate after the website’s troubled start. Republicans yesterday questioned the credibility of the numbers.
‘Cooking the Books’
“I think they’re cooking the books on this,” Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, said in an appearance yesterday on Fox News Sunday, without providing evidence to substantiate his comment. “What kind of insurance will those people actually have? Will they be able to keep the doctor that they want? How much more is it going to cost them?”
The application problem was the second flaw today in the enrollment system. Federal officials took down the website early in the morning to fix a software bug and had the system back up by business hours.
“People shouldn’t panic,” Peters said. “They should go to the site and do their best to get enrolled today. If they can’t enroll today, we will help them tomorrow.”
In addition to the enrollment reported by the administration in private plans, as many as 3.4 million people are estimated to have been added to Medicaid through January, according to Avalere Health, a Washington consulting firm. Twenty-six states are expanding the program under the law to cover more adults earning near-poverty level wages.
Age 26 Rule
About 2 million adults under age 26 gained insurance coverage since the law’s passage in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the earliest coverage expansions under the law was a requirement, effective in 2011, that insurers allow parents to include children under age 26 on their health plans.
The percentage of younger people who enroll using exchanges is important because they’re expected to use fewer medical services than older people. The more young and healthy people insurers cover, the less risk they face, reducing future premium increases.
“The president of WellPoint, which is one of the big national insurance companies, said a couple of weeks ago that the sign-ups are getting younger by the day,” said Senator Angus King, a Maine independent. “In other words, younger people, not surprisingly, are the last people to sign up.
‘‘I suspect that’s who is signing up today and tomorrow,’’ King said on Fox News Sunday.
The 6 million figure announced by the administration reflects only people who selected a plan using the exchanges, not those who have paid their first premium to their insurer -- the final step required to complete enrollment.
While Republicans have pressed for that number, U.S. officials have said it isn’t available because a system to automatically transfer data between the government and insurers isn’t finished.
The government also hasn’t said how many of the 6 million enrolled previously had insurance. Assessing whether the law has progressed toward its goal of covering more of the 48 million people who lacked insurance in 2012 depends on that information.
The law provides a number of specific exemptions from the penalty, and the Obama administration has created others, using a broad exception for ‘‘hardships.” People who aren’t eligible for subsidies in the exchanges don’t have to pay the penalty if the lowest insurance premium they can find would cost more than 8 percent of their income.
Hardship exemptions include a death in the family, bankruptcy or foreclosure, victims of domestic violence and people who couldn’t pay medical bills in the past two years.
For those who don’t sign up by today and aren’t eligible for an extension, enrollment opens in November for coverage starting in January 2015.
--With assistance from Steve Geimann in Washington and Caroline Chen in New York.