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U.S. extends Obamacare sign-up deadline in case of tech troubles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans in most states who tried to apply for medical coverage under President Barack Obama's healthcare law by a March 31 deadline but met with technical difficulties will get an automatic extension to enroll, officials said on Wednesday.

The new federal guidelines apply to consumers in the 36 states served by the federal health insurance marketplace and its website, HealthCare.gov. Monday is the cut-off date for choosing a health plan in 2014.

"Just like Election Day, if you are in line when the polls close you get to vote. We won't close the door on those who tried to get covered and were unable to do so through no fault of their own," said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the agency overseeing the healthcare law rollout.

People who tried to enroll by the March 31 deadline for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, will be allowed in during a grace period in April.

More than 5 million people have signed up for the new health plans so far, the administration said, suggesting it may exceed forecasts for a total of 6 million new enrollees by the end of this month.

More recent applicants may have experienced technical problems on HealthCare.gov or long wait times at federal call centers as traffic spikes ahead of the deadline.

"CMS will process information related to paper applications received by April 7 to capture those consumers who were 'in line' with paper applications or whose applications were pending submission or review of supporting documentation on March 31," CMS said in a statement.

Those people will be able to select a plan through April 30 for coverage effective May 1, provided they pay their first month's premium by the deadline set by their chosen insurer.

Obama's health reform law requires most Americans to be enrolled in health coverage by March 31 or pay a penalty. It was not clear how much of an effort a potential applicant would have to make in order to qualify for special enrollment status.

"The reality is that consumers have to attest to the fact that they were eligible for this coverage," Bataille said in a conference call with reporters.

There was no indication the government would or could verify that the applicants had made an effort to enroll before Monday.

Bataille downplayed the potential for fraud, noting that it was an official application for federal benefits and "most people are truthful when applying for those benefits."

The federal government call centers and website have been experiencing unprecedented demand in recent weeks, with 1.2 million visits to HealthCare.gov on Tuesday alone and half a million calls answered at call centers on Monday and Tuesday, Bataille said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Gunna Dickson and Peter Cooney)

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