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It's a bumpy ride on opening day

Online insurance marketplaces are delayed in several states, and the federal website freezes up.

October 02, 2013|Noam N. Levey
  • President Obama hugs a woman who will benefit from health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act after speaking about healthcare reform at the White House on Tuesday.
President Obama hugs a woman who will benefit from health insurance plans… (Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — New online insurance marketplaces created by President Obama's healthcare law got off to a bumpy start Tuesday, as a rush of consumers and a host of technical glitches slowed enrollment on the first day uninsured Americans could sign up for coverage.

Several states running their own marketplaces -- including Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington -- were forced to delay the rollout of their websites, even as other states reported that shoppers were signing up.

The federal government website that consumers in 36 states will use to get health coverage -- -- repeatedly froze when consumers tried to create accounts, the first step in selecting a health plan.

Obama administration officials attributed some of the problems to high volume: 2.8 million people visited the federal website between midnight Monday and 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Additionally, 81,000 people called the help line, (800) 318-2596, and 60,000 people requested live online chats to get questions answered, the administration said.

"We're off to a good start," said Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is overseeing the marketplaces. "People are signing up, and we're pleased."

Obama administration officials insisted they were addressing technical issues. But they refused to provide any data on the number of Americans who successfully enrolled in health coverage.

Reports also persisted around the country of long waits on help lines run by state and federal officials. Maryland's call center had to interrupt service Tuesday morning because of technical problems.

Critics of the law seized on the glitches. In a tweet to her followers, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) called problems with the insurance marketplace in her state a "precursor to the complications to come."

Experts said the opening-day setbacks wouldn't seriously affect enrollment if they were resolved quickly. Consumers have until March 31 to select a health plan. Coverage starts Jan. 1.

"It is a marathon, not a sprint," said Jon Kingsdale, who oversaw the state insurance marketplace in Massachusetts that was the model for the national law. "This is just the time when people are suiting up and tying the laces on their sneakers."

The Affordable Care Act allows Americans who don't get coverage through an employer to shop for health plans on new state-based insurance marketplaces.

Health insurers participating in the marketplaces for the first time must offer a basic set of benefits and are prohibited from turning away people with preexisting medical conditions. Millions of low- and moderate-income Americans who earn less than four times the federal poverty level -- or about $46,000 for an individual -- will qualify for government subsidies to help with their premiums.

Obama has made this new system of guaranteeing coverage a central selling point of the law. Administration officials hoped to minimize problems at a time when the law is under increasing scrutiny and facing heightened attacks from critics in Congress.

Despite the reported problems, state officials around the country reported that thousands of people were coming to their websites to seek coverage.

More than 34,500 unique visitors came to Colorado's insurance marketplace in the first three hours it was open, and more than 1,300 set up accounts, according to the state's market, Connect for Health Colorado.

Kentucky reported that 24,000 people had visited the state marketplace by midmorning and that enrollment officials had processed about 1,000 applications for coverage.

In Nevada, more than 1,200 people had set up accounts before noon, the state's marketplace said.

Like the federal website, there was some evidence that intense interest among consumers may have contributed to problems with state enrollment sites.

New York's insurance marketplace, which froze for hours, reported that it had received 2 million visits in the two hours after its website opened.

In California, officials said 1.8 million online hits and 6,500 calls came in early Tuesday -- quickly overwhelming its enrollment system and call center. The state's insurance exchange said it was improving the website and adding staff.


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