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WASHINGTON - More than 500,000 people have signed up for insurance through the federal health exchange, HealthCare.gov in the first three weeks of December, President Obama said Friday.
"What that means is ... the demand is there, and the product is good," said Obama, who again acknowledged that the roll-out of the federal health insurance website was "screwed up."
That means that so far this month, at least 25,000 people a day have signed up for insurance on the federal site, Department of Health and Human Services officials confirmed, a rate far higher than in the first two months the site was open.
In October, when the site was hampered by outages and glitches, only 26,794 enrolled in insurance. That's fewer than 1,000 people a day. In November, that rate jumped to about 3,800 a day, HHS statistics show.
Nationwide, more than 1 million people have enrolled in private health plans so far, with half enrolling in state exchanges, state and federal officials say.
"That is a big deal," Obama said. "That's why I ran for this office."
Monday is the deadline for those who want health insurance by Jan. 1 to enroll in coverage. That means hundreds of thousands of people are expected to go to the federal site through the weekend. The site can handle 800,000 people a day, said Julie Bataille, communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
"It's going to get larger and larger," said Ron Pollack, founding executive director of Families USA, a non-profit group supporting the Affordable Care Act and greater access to health care. "I think we'll have a big surge between now and Dec. 23. But I also think it's going to be a significant growth from month to month in the last three months of the enrollment period."
The uninsured have until March 31 to sign up for insurance to avoid paying a fine for the individual mandate with their 2014 taxes.
The government planned to enroll at least 7 million people by the end of 2014, and the Congressional Budget Office has used that total to project future budget levels.
Republicans immediately countered that the administration had fallen short of its own goals.
"While the administration is touting over 1 million enrollees in December, the administration needed to enroll over 2.9 million Americans in December to meet their own goals," Sarah Swinehart, spokeswoman for the Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a press statement.
Obama's comments Friday followed an HHS announcement in a letter to lawmakers that Americans whose insurance policies were canceled this year will be excused from paying fees due to the requirement that all Americans have health insurance, which is also called the individual mandate.
The law already included a "hardship exemption," and several lawmakers had argued that having a policy unexpectedly canceled because it did not fit the coverage requirements of the new law should qualify as a hardship because it comes through no fault of the consumer.
Those whose plans were canceled will also be able to buy catastrophic coverage, which previously had been available only to people younger than 30. Those policies tend to cover fewer things and cost less than the policies now required by the law.
"The president and I want to do everything we can to ensure that individuals with canceled plans have as many options as possible," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and five other senators who had asked about the exemption. "I agree with you that these consumers should qualify for this temporary hardship exemption, and I can assure you that the exemption will be available to them."
The mandate requires that anyone who does not have health insurance in 2014 pay a fee when they turn in their 2014 tax returns.
"This is a common sense clarification of the law," HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said. "For the limited number of consumers whose plans have been canceled and are seeking coverage, this is one more option."
Not everyone is happy about the change.
"This latest rule change could cause significant instability in the marketplace and lead to further confusion and disruption for consumers," said America's Health Insurance Plans'President Karen Ignagni in a statement.
Republican lawmakers used the change as an opportunity to attack the law. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called the change an acknowledgement "that more Americans have lost health insurance than gained it" under the law. He again called for the law to be repealed.