Americans will get more time to enroll in Obamacare insurance plans if they started the process but were unable to complete it before the March 31 deadline.
"If consumers are in line on the 31st and can't finish, we won't shut the door on them," said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, in an email Tuesday. Under the health care law, consumers who aren't insured by the end of March may have had to pay a penalty of as much as 1 percent of their income.
A day earlier, officials said the federal exchange's website, HealthCare.gov, had more than 1.1 million visitors, the second most ever. State exchanges also were busy with Washington state enrolling 12,000 people last week while almost 1,200 signed up Tuesday in Connecticut, officials said.
"The expected surge in last-minute enrollments has begun," said Richard Onizuka, the chief executive officer for the Olympia-based Washington Health Benefit Exchange, in a statement.
About 5 million people enrolled in private plans through March 17 using government health exchanges created by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration has said. With a last-minute surge, the U.S. effort may meet or exceed 6 million, the most recent estimate of the Congressional Budget Office and a symbolic goal for President Barack Obama, who faces continuing criticism from political foes that the law is not viable.
Obama administration officials were deployed across the country over the last month to help push enrollment in advance of the deadline.
Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. health secretary, visited Montclair State University in New Jersey to observe local enrollment efforts there, while Obama's senior adviser Valerie Jarrett met with local officials in Los Angeles at an event at a community health clinic,
At the same time, Republicans have said the Obama administration is over-reporting the number of people who have enrolled because they don't yet know how many Americans have paid for coverage. Customers can't complete enrollment until they pay their first premium to insurers.
Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee said Tuesday in a letter to Sebelius that administration regulatory guidance to insurers shows "there is specific information about who has paid their premium" collected by the government. They asked her to provide it "immediately."
The health care law seeks to cover many of the nation's 48 million uninsured people, either through private plans sold on the exchanges -- often with the help of government subsidies to reduce premiums -- or expanded Medicaid programs in about half the states.
"We are thrilled to see a surge of activity, with near-record levels of traffic on healthCare.gov in recent days," Peters, the HHS spokeswoman, said. "Our systems are ready to handle these high volumes in the remaining six days before the deadline."
Peters said the government won't know how many people paid their first premium, completing their enrollments, until contractors finish building an automated system allowing insurers to exchange the information with the government. Until then, the data "is neither final nor complete," she said.
"When we have accurate and reliable data regarding premium payments, we will make the information available," Peters said.
Kevin Counihan, chief executive officer of Connecticut's exchange, said on Twitter that more than 4,000 people had signed up Tuesday for private health plans and Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor.
The website turnout in Washington state was four times the weekly enrollment average, the group running the online exchange said in a statement. Since Oct. 1, more than 125,000 state residents have enrolled in private health plans through the exchange, according to the statement.