Shoppers seeking health insurance for January through MNsure now have until noon on New Year's Eve, but state officials don't want people to wait.

MNsure announced the change Friday, saying it's driven by high consumer demand — not problems with the MNsure website.

People can buy individual health insurance policies through MNsure or directly from insurance companies, and three insurers previously set Dec. 31 as the deadline for buying off-exchange coverage. The government-run exchange pushed back the exchange deadline to match those carriers to "align our deadlines," said Joe Campbell, a MNsure spokesman.

The change, the second such extension in a week, means a repeat of last year's scramble for insurance companies to get invoices and ID cards to people who sign-up at the last minute.

"We are working feverishly to make sure this all works," said Wendy Wicks, a spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based UCare.

Earlier this week, UCare raised concerns about MNsure's ongoing struggle to send workable information to health insurers about those enrolling in coverage through the exchange. The problems with sending complete and accurate information makes it difficult for insurers to communicate with their customers.

But on Friday, Wicks said the situation is getting better.

The deadline extension creates a challenge, and underscores the importance that MNsure send good information to insurers, said Jim McManus, a spokesman for Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

"Having said that, we were in a similar situation last year — so we're confident that the experience of our exchange team will be of great benefit over the next two weeks," McManus said in a statement.

As of Thursday, nearly 25,000 people had signed up for private health insurance through MNsure, which the state launched last year to implement the federal Affordable Care Act. To cover its costs next year, MNsure needs to enroll 67,000 in private coverage for 2015.

The new deadline at noon on New Year's Eve applies to those who want insurance that starts in January. People can use the exchange up until Feb. 15 for coverage that kicks in later. After mid-February, coverage is available through MNsure only in special circumstances.

"If you enroll by the deadline on Dec. 31 and pay your insurance company in full by your invoice due date, you will still be covered," said Scott Leitz, the MNsure chief executive, in a statement. "However, it is in the best interest of all Minnesotans to enroll as soon as possible, and to not wait."

Once an insurance company gets complete information from MNsure about an enrollee, it takes at least 10 days to process the sign-up, said Eileen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, a trade group. The timeline means that people who sign-up through MNsure late this month won't have plan materials at the beginning of the 2015.

So in some number of cases, invoices won't arrive until after coverage is supposed to begin.

"As long as people pay by the due date on their invoices, they will have coverage effective January first," Smith said. People must pay the January premium, she added, even if they don't receive care.

Typically, ID cards arrive once people pay their initial premium. Those who need care before the card arrives should contact their insurer, Smith said.

"If we have a record of them in our system, they can call and get a temporary ID card or we can give them their enrollment number," said Larry Bussey, spokesman for Minnetonka-based Medica.

Friday's announcement does not impact those who use MNsure and are found eligible for Medical Assistance of MinnesotaCare, which are the state's income-based public health insurance programs. While most buying commercial insurance through MNsure are limited to the open enrollment period, people who qualify can enroll in public programs at any time.

Before year's end, MNsure must automatically renew coverage for about 70,000 people currently enrolled in the public programs. As of Friday, none of the enrollees had been automatically renewed, according to the state Department of Human Services, which administers the programs.

"We are working together with MNsure … to ensure that priority work is done," the department said in a statement. "Coverage for all enrollees due for renewal in January will remain in place throughout the renewal process."

Between now and Dec. 31, MNsure says it will perform previously scheduled system maintenance that could result in the website being offline for set periods of time. Maintenance times will be announced on the health exchange website.

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck