Problems persist for Obamacare's bug-ridden exchanges

Three weeks after the health-care website's launch, even the law's supporters worry how long it will take to fix

Heavy Internet traffic and system problems have plagued the launch of the government’s health insurance exchange website.
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Dana Wilson has called the help center for the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) health exchanges so many times that he programmed the number into his phone.

Paul D., an uninsured part-time minister living in Bergen County, N.J., has taken to waking up at 2 a.m. to try to log onto healthcare.gov and submit an application — still no luck.

Lisa Longo, a former volunteer for Organizing for America who aggressively lobbied for the passage of the health-care law in 2009, was finally able to log onto the website Friday morning after many failed attempts, only to be told that her immigration status could not be verified and that she must mail in a copy of her driver's license. To be clear, Longo is an American citizen who was born in the United States.

So go the experiences of millions of Americans who have gone to healthcare.gov to shop for insurance plans through the state-level exchanges that debuted Oct. 1, only to be dogged by various technical difficulties. Many have spent hours on the website, attempting to create an account, shop for plans or see if they qualify for subsidies to purchase insurance, to no avail.

The exchanges are a centerpiece of the ACA — or Obamacare as it is commonly called — aimed at helping millions of uninsured Americans find affordable health-care coverage.

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Initially, the Obama administration steadfastly maintained that the volume of visitors — 9.5 million in the first week, according to an independent study — was causing “glitches,” but three weeks since launch, the problems persist, raising concerns even among some of the law's ardent supporters.

To get coverage by 2014 and get tax credits for purchasing insurance, consumers must enroll by Dec. 15. The time frame for signing up before people get hit with a penalty for not having coverage, under the law’s individual mandate, is slightly longer, until Feb. 15.

“I’m disappointed, but I’m not terribly surprised,” said Timothy Jost, a law professor and health-policy expert at Washington and Lee University.

Jost said a federal program of Obamacare’s size and complexity was bound to run into snags, but unbending opposition from Republicans around the country also stymied efforts for a smooth rollout.

The federal government initially expected states to take the lead in setting up their own exchanges. In the end, 34 states — many with GOP governors — refused to do so, leaving the job to the Department of Health and Human Services, with no additional funds appropriated for the massive undertaking.

“The question is can they get up and running in time?” Jost said. “There’s some pressure to get this thing fixed, and I have no idea when it’s going to happen.”

The Obama administration has previously said it hopes to enroll 7 million people by the end of March. On Saturday, it announced that half a million Americans have so far registered.

Some outside IT experts warn that the website could need a full overhaul. Others predict even bigger problems will emerge once more people are able to get further along in the enrollment process and insurance companies begin sorting through information they submit.

For now, some potential customers have repeatedly failed to even create accounts that would allow them to see premium prices and compare different coverage plans. Others have gotten further along in the process but are unable to enroll, running into the dreaded error screen or get booted off the system.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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'Fingers crossed'

Many consumers contacted by Al Jazeera who had attempted to use the exchanges were supporters of the ACA and enthusiastic about having new options — which makes their current conundrum even more maddening.

Paul D., the part-time minister, has been without health insurance for three and a half years, ever since he was booted off Medicaid in New Jersey when his son turned 19. Although he’s had open-heart surgery in the past, he has avoided going to the cardiologist for the last few years for fear of how he would pay for any of the needed procedures. He has resorted to praying as a form of health care.

“I keep my fingers crossed,” he said.

“My feeling is if you’re planning this, you get the best people you can so that when you roll it out, these glitches don’t happen,” Paul added. “In this day and age, when you’re touting a program like this, and this is your signature domestic issue, you better make damn sure that it rolls out properly.”

Mallory Tossell, 27, was eager to see what the exchanges could offer her since she has several pre-existing conditions that have prevented her from getting covered in the past. She tried doggedly to get on the Texas website to see if she qualifies for Medicaid or subsidies, and is still waiting on an answer.

“When I see high schoolers with more competent websites, it’s discouraging,” she said.

Tossell said she thinks consumers in bluer states may be having an easier time.

“When it comes down to it, it’s about Texas being spiteful about anything that the federal government tells it to do,” she said. “The people that are trying to be helped are being stomped on.”

Wilson, 55, is in between jobs and has had kidney problems in the past, the expenses for which he’s paid out of pocket. He wanted to browse plans in Florida and South Carolina, in case his next employer does not provide adequate coverage, but has failed to log on over 100 times. The employees at the call centers he is directed to are unfailingly polite, he said, but have no idea how to help him.

“If our president is so passionate about this program… why didn’t they have their ducks in a row?” he asked. “Let’s compare to private industry — how successful would eBay or Paypal be if they had so many flaws?”

Longo, 48, the Organizing for America volunteer, is confident that eventually the problems will be ironed out, but worries about giving more ammunition to Obamacare’s many adversaries.

“I’m frustrated because it makes the ACA look bad and it gives critics fodder to just to use anything they can to throw at this,” she said. “I really hope that people will give it a chance and not judge it on this really awful beginning it’s having.”

Of course, some of the more persistent users have been able to enroll, through sheer tenacity. Laura McGinley, 44, was the first person in Wyoming to enroll in a plan offered by WINhealth, one of two insurance companies offering plans in the state. How does she know?

The CEO of the company, Stephen Goldstone, called her on Oct. 3 to congratulate her on “an extraordinary thing.”

Many of those interviewed by Al Jazeera expressed confidence that the issues would ultimately be resolved. Sabrina Corlette, a professor at the Health Policy Institute at Georgetown, said Medicare and Medicare Part D were also plagued by initial problems that were smoothed out over time.

“There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on,” she said. “At this point in time, I am less interested in assigning blame and more interested in how quickly can it be fixed and what can we tell consumers.”

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