Backers of President Obama's healthcare law are heartened by strong… (Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — Kentucky health officials thought they might get a handful of serious shoppers when they flipped the switch Tuesday on Kynect, the new online insurance marketplace the state created under President Obama's healthcare law.
"We weren't even hopeful that a couple hundred people would apply," said Carrie Banahan, Kynect's executive director.
By the end the week, more than 16,000 Kentucky individuals and families had begun online applications to get health coverage next year.
PHOTOS: 2013's memorable political moments
It has been a similar story across the country. Since the new marketplaces opened Tuesday, millions of Americans have flooded websites, call centers and insurance offices seeking information about health coverage offered through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
More than 8.5 million people visited the federal http://www.healthcare.gov site last week, according to officials at the Department of Health and Human Services.
California's marketplace, Covered California, had 514,000 unique visitors to its website the first day of enrollment.
Blue Shield of California said its consumer call volume more than doubled last week with hundreds of people asking about their options under the healthcare law and whether they qualified for federal subsidies.
For residents of 36 states that are not running their own online markets, the federal website is the main portal to get health coverage provided by the new law next year. Additionally, the federal call center received 406,000 calls.
Very few of those potential customers have been able to complete the process of applying for coverage. Legions have been thwarted by technical problems that repeatedly shut down many of the online marketplaces, including the federal site. And although officials probably have several weeks to fix the glitches — particularly with public attention focused on the federal government shutdown — lingering problems still threaten to make the debut a disaster.
But if the enrollment process smooths out, the unexpected initial surge of consumers may end up being the most important story to emerge from the first days of Obamacare's signature new markets.
"Clearly there is a lot of interest in getting health insurance out there," said Joel Ario, a former state insurance commissioner and Obama administration official who, like many, was surprised by the outpouring.
Before enrollment began last week, public opinion polls consistently showed that Americans remained deeply skeptical of the 2010 law and unfamiliar with many of its core provisions.
Fewer than 4 in 10 adults in a recent nationwide Gallup survey said they were familiar with the new marketplaces. Lack of knowledge was even more pronounced among the uninsured, with three-quarters saying they were unfamiliar with the marketplaces.
Obama administration officials and many state leaders have worried they would be unable to get enough consumers, threatening the viability of the markets, which depend on strong enrollment by young, healthy customers. Officials hope to enroll 7 million people next year.
The online marketplaces, one for each state, are designed to allow Americans who don't get coverage through employers to shop for health plans. Insurers selling on the markets must for the first time meet new basic standards and are prohibited from turning away consumers with preexisting medical conditions.
Millions of low- and moderate-income Americans who make less than four times the federal poverty level — or about $46,000 for individuals and up to about $94,000 for a family of four — will qualify for government subsidies to help with their premiums.
The open enrollment period lasts until March 31, though consumers who want coverage to start Jan. 1 will have to select health plans by Dec. 15. Many experts believe the real crush of consumers will come ahead of the December deadline.
In coming weeks, the marketplaces will face several critical tests.
One will be whether potential customers continue to visit them once the initial surge of interest wanes.
Another will be whether the administration can fix the numerous technical glitches that have frustrated consumers. The problems with the healthcare.gov site were so severe last week that in many states, only a small fraction of consumers appear to have been able to successfully apply for health coverage. Obama administration officials have declined to say how many people have enrolled so far.
In Louisiana, which has more than 900,000 uninsured residents, just seven people had applied for a plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana through the first two days of the federal marketplace.
Kentucky, which minimized disruptions on its website by using a simpler design than the one on the federal site, enrolled 4,739 individuals and families by Friday.