MNsure officials said Friday that they have extended the deadline for consumers to enroll in a health plan by eight days, amid continued problems in enrolling people for coverage on the new insurance exchange.

The new Dec. 31 deadline applies to individuals and families who need insurance coverage to begin on Jan. 1. Those who are eligible for federal tax credits must create an account and choose a health plan by 11 p.m. that day to be covered, officials said.

"We are aware of the concerns many consumers have as we approach January 1," said MNsure interim CEO Scott Leitz, "and we are taking critical steps to ensure that Minnesotans have comprehensive, affordable health coverage when they need it."

Leitz took over after the Tuesday night resignation of former MNsure executive director April Todd-Malmlov, who oversaw a bumpy rollout since the exchange's Oct. 1 launch. Leitz, who had been the state's assistant commissioner of human services, pledged this week to do "everything in his power" to turn things around.

Even as the new deadline offers more breathing room for frustrated consumers and harried IT workers, problems continue to dog the website. MNsure is working with brokers to re-enroll about 1,000 people who were told they didn't qualify for federal tax credits when in fact they did.

On Friday, consumers reported spending two hours on hold at the call center, even though MNsure has doubled its staff. Many processes are being handled manually, including some communications between MNsure and insurers and more than 5,000 paper applications.

Teams of IT workers from the state and health insurance companies are gearing up for an expected rush of online traffic. As many as 100 additional IBM workers will be on-site to address technical problems, and have committed to 4,000 hours of work by the end of the year, MNsure spokeswoman Jenni Bowring-McDonough said.

Leaders of the state's largest insurance companies welcomed the decision to extend the enrollment deadline. Although insurance carriers say they prefer that consumers make a payment right away, they have also agreed to accept premium payments up to Jan. 10 and will retroactively provide coverage on New Year's Day.

"Nobody wants to spend the last weekend before the holidays on hold, trying to figure out their health insurance status and then fretting about whether they have coverage or not," said Dannette Coleman, who leads Medica's individual and family business.

Minnesota is one of 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, that decided to build its own exchange website, a new marketplace that is a key component to the Affordable Care Act.

Though the online marketplaces were touted as a way to make the shopping for health coverage as simple as booking a plane ticket, the complexity of the systems involved has made achieving that difficult.

The system must tap into a federal hub to verify a person's identity, citizenship and income — and when the federal hub is down for maintenance or other issues, MNsure goes offline as well.

The MNsure system also has struggled to communicate with computer systems at health insurance companies, a vital link that lets the insurers know who has signed up for coverage and also transfers premium payments.

MNsure still isn't integrated with the state processes that coordinate publicly subsidized health coverage for more than 150,000 Minnesotans. That upgrade was scheduled for March.

Still, the exchange's numbers have been improving. As of mid-December, 11,805 people had used MNsure to sign up for private insurance — more than twice the 4,478 private policies that had been purchased by the end of November. Another 27,150 people had enrolled in the state's two public insurance plans.

But even though more people are able to get through the system, enrollment remains well below forecasts. State officials were expecting about 975,000 Minnesotans, including those on public programs, to enroll in plans through MNsure in its first year.

Medica's Coleman is betting that the crush of traffic will continue through to March 31, the end of the open enrollment period. That's when those without insurance will face a fine under the Affordable Care Act. Those who miss that deadline will have to wait until next fall if they want to buy a plan.

"You're locked out until next year," she said. "I don't think people realize that. … You cannot just get coverage when you want."