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White House defends extension of Obamacare deadline

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Wednesday defended extending some enrollments for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act past a March 31 deadline, saying doing so was comparable to allowing voters who are in line when polls close to cast their ballots.

The administration late on Tuesday granted an extension until mid-April to people who say they have started to apply for coverage through the HealthCare.gov website but are unable to complete the process before the deadline.

"We expect there to be increasing numbers as the deadline approaches," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

The administration expects criticism of the extension "by those who want to deny Americans quality, affordable health insurance, and want to put insurance companies back in control," he told reporters traveling with the president to Europe. "But we'll take that as it comes."

Critics of the 2010 healthcare law, best known by its nickname of Obamacare, and of President Barack Obama's management of it, were scathing in their comments about the delay, the latest in a series of extensions due mostly to the complexity of complying with the law.

"What the hell is this? A joke?" House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner asked at a news conference. Boehner faulted the administration for arbitrarily changing the rules of the law in mid-course.

Carney said allowing people to complete their applications past the deadline was not an unheard-of accommodation.

"The only thing that has changed is that those individuals who have begun the process of applying online by the deadline, which remains March 31st, will be able to ensure that they can complete the process," he said. "If you're in line before the polls close, you get to vote."

HealthCare.gov was overwhelmed by technical glitches for much of last October and November, the first two months of Obamacare's six-month enrollment period. Most of those bugs have been worked out and as of March 17 more than 5 million people had signed up for private coverage through the federal site and 14 state-run marketplaces.

Still, polls show overall attitudes toward the law are negative. Republicans, who have steadfastly opposed Obamacare and sought to block it or weaken it, expect to take advantage of its unpopularity as they try to regain control of the Senate from Democrats in November elections.

(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal, Jeff Mason aboard Air Force One and Steve Holland in Brussels; Editing by Ken Wills)

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