With open enrollment for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) ending today, federal officials have taken to social media in a last-ditch effort to urge Americans to sign up for health care coverage.

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Final push as ACA health coverage deadline nears

March 31st, 2014

NEW YORK – With open enrollment for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) ending today, federal officials have taken to social media in a last-ditch effort to urge Americans to sign up for health care coverage.

Along with President Barack Obama, officials sending tweets on Monday under the #GetCoveredNow hashtag on Twitter included Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) and Reps. Joe Kennedy (D., Mass.), Adam Smith (D., Wash.), Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) and James Clyburn (D., S.C.).

Others sending tweets in recent days to encourage consumers to enroll for health benefits included Vice President Joe Biden; HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Patty Murray (D., Wash.); and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), as well as The White House and HHS.

According to HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters, traffic on the federal Health Insurance Marketplace website, HealthCare.gov., totaled 1.2 million visitors on Saturday and 1.7 million visits on Sunday.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs HealthCare.gov, reported on Sunday that over the past seven days the site has handled record consumer demand, supporting more than 8.7 million visits. "The site continues to perform well under the largest sustained period of volume to date," CMS stated.

The 24/7 call center that supports the Health Insurance Marketplace also has logged a record number of calls from consumers, taking more than 2.5 million calls in the last week alone, compared with 2.4 million for the month of February, CMS said. About 364,000 calls to the center were made on Sunday. 

Though the last day to buy health insurance to avoid paying a fine with 2014 taxes was March 31, the Obama administration, citing a last-minute surge in demand, built in some leeway for those consumers who were actively engaged in the process of signing up for health insurance. As of March 27, more than 6 million people had signed up for medical insurance plans through federal and state exchanges.

When HealthCare.gov was overwhelmed by people trying to enroll in late December to gain health coverage by Jan. 1, the administration enacted a similar stretch of the deadline for those who tried to enroll but did not make the deadline.

This month officials said they would ease the deadline for those with "complex or extenuating" circumstances that keep them from fully enrolling by March 31. Several states operating their own exchanges took similar steps as the deadline ­approached.

Under the move planned by the administration, some people were to be given a special enrollment period, beyond the deadline, if they could show they were not able to enroll because of an error by the federal exchange or by HHS.

Chain drug and other retailers have been pitching in to help consumers get coverage. Last week, for example, CVS Caremark Corp. and Kroger Co.'s Ralphs supermarket chain partnered with the Covered California state exchange to promote the ACA inside their stores. An exchange spokesman said the retailers were providing the display space at no cost to the state.

CVS has been promoting the Affordable Care Act at its stores since enrollment began in October. In California, the exchange said CVS would provide additional information in 120 stores in areas with the highest concentration of residents eligible for federal premium subsidies.

Insurers have been using a number of unconventional strategies to encourage people to sign up. In Philadelphia, for example, Independence Blue Cross held an "enroll-a-thon" that included a 16-hour marketing blitz on a local television station. In Mississippi, Humana Inc. launched a bus excursion making stops at churches and community centers where it solicited last-minute signees.

The Obama administration has turned to some unconvential strategies as well. The president's outreach included meeting with YouTube personalities and conveying his message over daytime television shows and promoting his health care objectives over a variety of other media sources.

Meanwhile, the administration is already looking at next year. Obama is requiring health plans in ACA insurance exchanges to include a more robust offering of care providers in 2015 in the aftermath of early backlash over limited networks in the health care law's first year.

Health plans selling on the federal marketplaces in 2015 must include 30% of area "essential community providers," which are typically health centers and other hospitals serving mostly low-income patients. That's up from a 20% requirement in 2014, the first year of expanded overage under the health care reform law.

CMS will also take a much more active role in reviewing health plan networks. The agenncy, which outlined the new standards in a recent letter to insurers, will evaluate whether the plans include enough access to hospitals, primary care doctors, mental health providers and ­oncologists.