Rush to sign up for insurance causes technical delays

Users report glitches on ACA websites, often due to heavy traffic, while a handful of states have little trouble at all

A woman looks at the insurance exchange website on Tuesday, the day the exchanges were launched.
Karen Bleier/AFP

Open enrollment for statewide health insurance exchanges kicked off Tuesday amid widespread technical glitches and an unexpectedly high volume of visitors, which caused many state websites to crash.

That overwhelming volume of visitors was not lost on the Obama administration, which insisted that Americans favor the Affordable Care Act. In a Tuesday afternoon speech in the White House Rose Garden, President Barack Obama said demand for enrollment “exceeds anything that we had expected.”

He added that, the landing page for the 34 states whose exchanges will be run by the federal government, was moving slowly because more than 1 million people had visited the website before 7 a.m. Tuesday.

As of Wednesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hadn’t revealed how many people have signed up for insurance through the federal site, but it said that 2.8 million people had visited it as of 12 a.m. Some 81,000 people had reached out to call centers, and 60,000 requested live chats for help signing up. The Obama administration projects that about 7 million people will enroll in private individual or family health insurance in 2014 through the insurance marketplaces.

But two days into open enrollment, scores of consumers reported trouble accessing exchange websites or creating accounts to sign up for health plans in states like Alabama, Texas and West Virginia, which have federally run insurance marketplaces.

“I have tried getting on the site several times, all to no avail,” wrote Kevin McCarthy, a 48-year-old, self-employed single father from Houston, in an email. “I am unable to get beyond the initial login ... each attempt is timed out.”

Kristen Polich of Chicago logged on to before 6 a.m. on Tuesday to check out health insurance options in Illinois, a state with a federal-state partnership running its marketplace. “At first it seemed all was going fine — I was setting up my account as prompted — but then came time to set up the security questions needed,” she wrote in an email. “There is supposed to be a drop down menu of questions — nothing appeared in the drop down.” 

Polich started over, the security questions appeared, and she successfully created an account — or so she thought. Thirty minutes later, she received a verification email to complete the process, only to click on it and discover the website had too much traffic and couldn’t process her request.

'Strong consumer reponse'

Some of the state-run exchange websites reported trouble, too. For example, representatives from New York’s State of Health site asked enrollees on Twitter to call its health enrollment assistance line to sign up for insurance because the 2 million people who visited the website within the first hour and a half after launch had caused it to crash.

The state-run exchanges did seem to have more luck with the enrollment process overall. Nevada Health Link, the name of the Silver State's exchange, reported on Twitter that more than 32,800 unique visitors had created 3,385 accounts through the website as of Tuesday afternoon, with a total of 99 insurance applications in progress at the end of the day. “Great traffic numbers for day 1!” it tweeted.

And potential enrollees surfing California’s state-run insurance exchange, Covered California, reported smooth sailing overall as they shopped for plans, though heavy traffic caused some slowdowns Tuesday morning.

Covered California officials said in a released statement that they were “thrilled with the strong consumer response” of 5 million page views as of Tuesday afternoon, with an average of 5,000 views a minute.

In Washington, D.C., where more than 1,000 accounts were created at D.C. Health Link on Tuesday, Sulaiman Wasty, 57, said it took him less than 10 minutes to sign up for insurance. The website worked “like a dream,” he said in a telephone interview, comparing it to “nothing more than signing up for a credit card application.”

Wasty is an independent consultant on government accountability who launched his own firm after spending years working at the World Bank, and until Tuesday, he’d been buying his own catastrophic health insurance coverage through Aetna for $250 a month. He said his plan didn’t cover prescription drugs or primary care doctor visits, just hospital care. “They were charging me $250 for nothing,” he said.

But starting in January, he’ll pay just $220 per month for a midtier “silver” plan offered through the ACA in which 80 percent of his medical costs are covered — through the exact same insurer, Aetna.

Wasty will, however, have to wait until next month to hear whether he’ll qualify for premium subsidies, because the exchange’s site isn’t yet equipped to calculate eligibility for Medicaid or subsidies on premiums.

Some users are even considering canceling their own employer-issued insurance because they found better rates through their state marketplaces, though premium prices do vary widely according to a person’s income and location.

Dewan Gibson, 34, a stay-at-home father of two young children, lives in Chula Vista, Calif., and spends his nights working as an independent grant writer for nonprofit organizations. His fiancee, who is pregnant with their third child, is a middle school teacher and receives free health insurance, which covers their whole family, through her job.

However, in doing some online research about available plans through Covered California, where premium prices and available insurance plans have been posted online for weeks, they’ve been surprised at how affordable the plans are. So Gibson’s wife-to-be is thinking about cutting back her teaching hours so she can spend more time at home with the kids, and he can use extra earnings from more days spent working to pay for insurance through the marketplace.

He said they’d probably enroll in a silver plan, which costs around $300 a month for their family before income calculations are made.

Catastrophe can strike

Terri Gregory, 52, who lives in Gun Barrel City, Texas, a rural town southeast of Dallas, says she can’t wait to get past the site overloads and sign up for health insurance for her family. Having researched the options, she plans on buying a silver plan that covers all four of them for less than $400 a month.

That includes her 54-year-old husband, a commercial brickmason who doesn’t receive health insurance through his job and has suffered seven heart attacks over the past 14 years.

Gregory said purchasing a plan for the family would have cost them at least $1,000 a month, and while one previous employer ended up buying them coverage after Gregory’s husband suffered two heart attacks, the company he works for now doesn’t offer it. So the family has racked up nearly $250,000 in medical bills that they can’t afford to pay, including a $26,000 helicopter charge, Gregory said. Her husband was airlifted to a nearby hospital after a major heart attack in May 2012 when his vital signs actually stopped; his heart was later shocked back into rhythm.

“We aren't moochers, and we don't expect anything for free,” Gregory wrote in an email to Al Jazeera. “But we're human beings, we're Americans, and we're contributing, law-abiding citizens that would like to maintain LIFE while pursuing liberty and happiness :)”

She added, “We are very grateful for the emergency treatment he's received, but also know that prevention would have saved us and the taxpayer a great deal of money.”

Gregory’s family did invest in a membership at a gym, where, she says, she and her husband walk on the treadmill daily. Once or twice a year they’ve been able to visit a primary care doctor who was willing to prescribe heart medications, because they couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket to see a cardiologist.

“Thankfully, I’m mostly healthy, as is our son,” Gregory said. But she plans to sign up for coverage at as soon as possible, because, as she says, “we well know that catastrophe can strike at any time."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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