ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
One deadline to sign up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act has just passed. It was last night. That deadline was for people who wanted coverage starting January 1. People can still sign up through the end of next month for coverage that would kick-in in a few months. By most accounts, demand has been huge because this the year penalties for not having health insurance go up. NPR health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak is here with more on the latest enrollment.
ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Hey Ari.
SHAPIRO: The government actually extended the enrollment period this week because the healthcare.gov website was so busy. Is this just a sign that demand is through the roof and it's all good?
KODJAK: Well, demand is through the roof, but I'm not sure it's all good. The demand is goosed because of these penalties you mentioned, they're going up a lot. They're at least doubling. It used to be the lowest penalty was about $325. Now the lowest penalty is $695 and could go up as much as $10,000.
SHAPIRO: OK. So people might've wanted health care but they also wanted to not pay the fines. Talk about how the website held up, especially given the history of the healthcare.gov website.
KODJAK: Well, it held up better than before, but there were some bumps. People were trying to buy insurance, and the government said they were getting 11 sign-ups per second for a couple of days last week. But the waits were getting kind of long, and on the telephone helpline, which is very popular, the waits were as long as 22 minutes earlier this week. There was - originally, the deadline was Tuesday. One of the government officials who was talking about this today said that they would've needed 72,000 people answering the phones to make the waits at the normal amount, you know, just to answer when people called, and that's why they had to extend the deadline.
SHAPIRO: Although it doesn't sound like these delays were on the scale of the epic meltdown when healthcare.gov first launched.
KODJAK: No, no. It wasn't that bad. I mean, like I said, the waits on the website were about two minutes. You know, something like Amazon, they would've been able to handle the volume, which was, you know, in the 150,000 to 200,000 people shopping at one time range.
SHAPIRO: So people who still want insurance and have not yet signed up, it's not too late for them, right? What happens at this point?
KODJAK: Well, they can still go onto healthcare.gov and find an insurance plan and sign up. They can go to the call center. They can go to what they call a navigator, somebody who helps you sign up, up through January 31. But that plan won't go into effect until March, and they may face a penalty for missing those two months if they have no insurance for January and February.
SHAPIRO: Now, to hear Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail talk about it, the Affordable Care Act is hugely unpopular and a failure. What do the latest numbers tell us about those claims from the Republican side?
KODJAK: Well, I think it's a complicated picture. People are clearly buying insurance. People want insurance and need insurance. But there are definitely a lot of people who have been goosed into buying insurance because of the penalties we were talking about. And people are really complaining that some of these plans are too expensive, they have high deductibles, they have high co-pays. You can see the complaints all over our website if you look at the comments under our stories.
SHAPIRO: We've been hearing a lot about this huge budget bill that Congress passed last night which includes removing two taxes that were part of the Affordable Care Act. What effect will that have on the law?
KODJAK: Well, I don't think it's going to have any effect on people buying insurance and the marketplace specifically, but these were the taxes that were supposed to pay for the expansion of Medicaid and to pay for the subsidies that make some of these policies affordable to people. So what it's going to do is expand the budget deficit, but in addition it opens up the law for criticism by saying yes, this law is costing taxpayers a lot of money because there are no pay-fors.
SHAPIRO: That's Alison Kodjak, NPR's health policy correspondent.
KODJAK: Thanks Ari.
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