Affordable Care Act

Insurance website overwhelmed by first-day shoppers

jholleman@thestate.comOctober 1, 2013 

The "Please wait" screen from healthcare.gov

JHOLLEMAN@THESTATE.COM — JOEY HOLLEMAN

— The first-day rush to sign up for the new Health Insurance Marketplace, or simply curiosity about it, overwhelmed the healthcare.gov website Tuesday.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said the website had 2.8 million visitors from midnight through 3 p.m., and “as with any new product launch, there will be glitches,” said Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the agency.

Tavenner urged patience, noting that people can sign up for the Health Insurance Marketplace through March 31. “While this is the first day you can sign up, it’s certainly not the last,” she said.

Computer system experts predicted crashes when this major component of the Affordable Care Act went live for the first time, and they were right. People who tried to register ran into long waits to start and balky web pages once they got into the system. Tavenner insisted that some people had been able to complete the shopping process and buy insurance, but she refused to say how many had done it.

“We’re certainly very pleased with the remarkable level of interest,” she said.

While the website was overwhelmed, few people were showing up in Columbia to talk with groups tasked with helping people navigate the system.

Charles Noble, who is helping with Eau Claire Cooperative Health Center’s insurance registration effort, looked on the bright side.

“Everyone on the team has attempted to go on the website, and sometimes we can get on to register, but we can’t actually apply” for insurance, Noble said. “I guess it’s a positive thing to know people are this interested.”

Gov. Nikki Haley, who opposed the Affordable Care Act as policy, said the state was doing all it could to help people sign up. The 2-1-1 call center used by the state Department of Health and Human Services took calls and tried to route people in the right direction.


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“Our job is to get the information out there,” Haley said. “The fed’s job is to make it work. Unfortunately, it’s not working. We’re going to continue doing what we can, but this is continuing to be the mess we thought it would be.”

At 6 a.m., the healthcare.gov website already was moving so slowly that saving a page of information took 10 to 20 seconds, if it saved at all. People all over the country reported in the 36 states using the system reported trouble with drop-down menus in security related questions. Tavenner acknowledged the drop-down menu problem was a major glitch, but she said it was fixed by 4 p.m.

At 9 a.m., the wait for online chat help or to talk to someone on the toll-free help line was 30 minutes or more. Tavenner said the line received 81,000 calls by 3 p.m.

“Surprise, surprise,” said Columbia health care economist Lynn Bailey. “I wasn’t going to try (Tuesday) anyway. Think of it like the first days after (the S.C. Department of Revenue) announced the breach.”

When that breach of tax identity information became public in 2012, state residents were asked to call a phone number or go online to a website. Both were overwhelmed for days.

“It’s just that an avalanche of people are trying to get in, and the system is overwhelmed,” said Marcus Marbert, who is working as a Navigator for the Cooperative Ministry in Columbia. “It will pass.”

Few people were contacting local groups tasked with helping them through the registration process. The Cooperative Ministry had three calls by 10 a.m. The S.C. Progressive Network had one call and arranged a meeting with somebody by noon.

At Richland Library, where staff members were prepared to answer questions and help people use library computers to access healthcare.gov, nobody had asked for that type of assistance by 11 a.m. Later in the afternoon, only a handful of people had asked about the new marketplace, according to library communications coordinator Laura Morris.

The website hiccups made it difficult to compare the 32 different policies being provided on the Health Insurance Marketplace in South Carolina. But there’s plenty of time. People have until Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage starting Jan. 1 and until March 15 to avoid the penalty for not having insurance next year.

Shoppers having trouble with healthcare.gov can find some of the plan details for individual companies on those insurance company websites - www.southcarolinablues.com, www.applynowsc.com and www.cchpsc.org. The details of the Coventry Healthcare of the Carolinas plans aren’t posted yet on the company website.

The marketplace is designed to help the uninsured and underinsured sign up for affordable health insurance. Under the Affordable Care Act, most people will be required to have health insurance in 2014.

The marketplace allows people to enter information on salary and family size to help determine how much government assistance they will have in paying for insurance. Then they can shop to determine which of the 32 policies at four different coverage levels is best for them.

The shopping experience was difficult Tuesday despite three years of planning by the federal health agencies. “This has never been done before,” Tavenner said.

Be Patient

www.healthcare.gov likely will work better Wednesday than it did Tuesday, but it’ll work even better later in the week or month.

Set up an appointment: Call the local Navigators for a time they can help sign up. Cooperative Ministry (803) 799-3853; S.C. Progressive Network (803) 808-3384; Greater Columbia Community Relations Council (803) 733-1124; S.C. Benefits Bank (800) 726-8774.

Go to insurance company websites: If you’re having trouble with healthcare.gov, you can find prices and details on the individual company sites, www.applynowsc.com, www.cchpsc.org and chccarolinas.coventryhealthcare.com.

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