The Obama administration on Friday announced the extension of the deadline to Dec. 23 for individuals to buy health plans that begin Jan. 1 through the Health Insurance Marketplace. The deadline had been Dec. 15.
The open enrollment period for consumers to buy a plan and avoid a financial penalty for 2014 closes on March 31, as previously scheduled.
"This extension will allow consumers more time to review plan options, to talk with their families, providers or enrollment assisters and to enroll in a plan,'' said Julie Bataille, communications director for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that administers healthcare.gov.
Ever since its launch on Oct. 1, the website has frustrated users with repeated error messages, long wait times and general unavailability as the system has crashed numerous times.
The federally run site serves 36 states, including Florida, while 14 states and the District of Columbia created their own online exchanges that have fared better than the beleaguered healthcare.gov.
On Nov. 15, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that 106,000 people have "selected" a plan using healthcare.gov and the 14 state-based exchanges.
Of those individuals who had "selected" a plan -- meaning they completed the necessary application, received their eligibility determination and selected a health plan, but have not necessarily paid for it -- only 26,000 did so using healthcare.gov.
More than 3,500 of those who made selections reside in Florida, the most of any state using the federal exchange.
Still, the numbers are far below the White House's goal of signing up 7 million Americans for health insurance coverage through the exchanges by March 31.
Bataille said the Obama administration had been in "ongoing conversations" with insurers about the deadline extension.
"This was done in consultation with them,'' she said, "to make sure consumers will be able to access coverage beginning Jan. 1.''
On Thursday, during a daily teleconference to update media on the website's operations, federal officials maintained their message that the functionality of healthcare.gov is improving every day.
Jeff Zients, the management consultant appointed to lead a team of technical experts working to improve the functionality of healthcare.gov, stuck with his estimate that the site will be working "smoothly" for "the vast majority" of Americans by Nov. 30.
Zients declined to elaborate on the number of Americans who will have a smooth experience -- the Washington Post cited anonymous sources estimating 80 percent of users -- but he said the technical team continues to install hardware and update software that has improved the website on two important measures: response time and error rate.
"Those are our key operating metrics,'' he said.
The average response time during the past week, Zients said, was less than one second. Users during the first week of launch waited on average eight seconds for pages across the website to load, he said.
The website's error rate also has dropped to .75 percent. "A few weeks ago the error rate was six percent,'' he said.
Zients said healthcare.gov's capacity also will increase by Nov. 30, adding to the "smoother" experience. Currently, the website can handle 25,000 users simultaneously without much trouble, Zients said.
He estimated that by month's end, that number will jump to 50,000 users simultaneously "seeking information, filling out applications, shopping and enrolling.''
Zients added that the website also will increase its capacity for unique visitors to about 800,000 a day.
And he announced the launch of a "customer-friendly queueing system'' that will kick in during spikes in usage and allow consumers to request an email alerting them when there's a better time to use the website.
However, he cautioned, the technical team continues to discover new problems as consumers advance further into the process, which begins with users creating a unique account, then applying for eligibility for the marketplace and for financial aide to lower their costs.
Consumers can shop for plans in their local county, and compare plans prices and benefits. But until they receive an eligibility determination from the federally-run website, they cannot know for certain the amount of their subsidy or set up the automatic payment from government to insurer.
During the first few weeks after roll out, insurers reported high error rates in the consumer data they were receiving from the exchanges. Zients reported that the error rate for users of the website was less than one percent, but it's unclear if that also applied to forms sent to insurers, which are referred to as "834" forms.
Zients said the technical team maintains a high-priority list of about 50 fixes that engineers work on "around the clock,'' and he said the work of finding errors and correcting them would be "ongoing.''
Certain features of healthcare.gov will be down for technical repairs from 9 p.m. EST Saturday to 9 a.m. Sunday, Bataille said, including the application function and the data hub that routes consumers' information to and from the federal agencies making eligibility determinations and the private insurers participating in the exchange.