Additionally, people in 10 general categories of special circumstances would also get additional time to apply — generally a 60-day period. The categories include exceptional circumstances such as natural disasters, system errors related to immigration status, computer error messages due to technical difficulties and situations involving domestic abuse, as well as other sorts of problems.
Explaining the extra time for those in line by March 31, the administration said it anticipates that heavy interest between now and Monday "could potentially keep consumers from completing the enrollment process despite their efforts to meet the deadline."
Special enrollment period are allowed under the law, but previously they were mainly expected to be used to accommodate changes in life circumstances, such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child or job loss.
The latest tweaks to health overhaul rules drew immediate scorn from Republicans committed to repealing "Obamacare."
"The administration has now handed out so many waivers, special favors and exemptions to help Democrats out politically ... it's basically become the legal equivalent of Swiss cheese," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday.
The late-innings announcement added to a perception of disarray that has dogged the health care overhaul from its early days. It also raised concerns about the potential for another round of technology problems such as the ones that paralyzed HealthCare.gov after its Oct. 1 launch.
There seemed to be three major factors involved:
— The administration is concerned about turning away thousands of people who may belatedly try to enroll this week. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 6 in 10 uninsured people were unaware of the March 31 enrollment deadline, and half said they didn't plan to get coverage.
— Many consumers trying to use the new online insurance markets may still be getting tangled up in the complicated enrollment process. The administration's own numbers show that only about half of the people deemed eligible to enroll through March 1 actually went all the way through to signing up. More than 4 million people either abandoned their applications or may still be trying to muddle through.
— Obama himself has been leading a last-minute drive to entice Hispanics to sign up. The nation's largest minority — with the highest uninsured rate of any race or ethnic group — has been on the sidelines and risks being left behind in the drive to expand coverage.
The White House is scrambling to meet a goal of 6 million signed up through new online markets that offer subsidized private health insurance to people without access to coverage on the job.
"We are experiencing a surge in demand and are making sure that we will be ready to help consumers who may be in line by the deadline to complete enrollment, either online or over the phone," said HHS spokesman Aaron Albright.
Officials say the federal website is holding up well under the added demand, with more than 1.2 million visits on Tuesday. But independent testing by Detroit-based Compuware has found that the site runs slowly when compared to other health insurance industry websites.
Officials said the grace period for people in line by March 31 will be available on the honor system.
How long the extension will last depends on individual circumstances. HHS said it will process paper applications received by April 7. Those applying online may have more time, until April 15, the same as the tax filing deadline. People who are due tax refunds may be willing to put some of that money toward health care premiums.