Workplace

Government shutdown impedes answers to health exchange problems

Updated: 2013-10-02T21:59:33Z

By DAVE HELLING and DIANE STAFFORD

The Kansas City Star

Deborah Franklin used her home computer Tuesday morning to try to buy a health insurance policy from the new Obamacare marketplace.

No luck.

“I couldn’t even get on the website,” she said.

After getting some advice at the Swope Health Center on Blue Parkway, the uninsured woman said she’d go home and try again. The possibility of affordable health coverage, she said, was too good to pass up.

“I have some pre-existing conditions,” said Franklin, 61. “I need it.”

Hundreds of thousands of Americans shared Franklin’s frustrating experience Tuesday, the first official day of business for the insurance marketplaces set up by the Affordable Care Act — the controversial law at the center of Tuesday’s government shutdown.

Website access was often slow or nonexistent. Wait times for phone service stretched from minutes to more minutes. Trained counselors asked customers for patience — then scheduled sign-up appointments for later in the week.

One Kansas City area man said he spent 90 minutes Tuesday morning trying to find coverage for his daughter, without success.

“I have tried calling the help center and got an automated system which couldn’t help,” he said in an email. “Tried using the ‘chat’ service and was told they would connect with someone who could help when available. Waited 10 minutes and then was disconnected.”

Federal officials urged patience and said known glitches were being fixed throughout the day.

And despite the first-day problems, local enthusiasm for access to low-cost health insurance appeared to remain high.

“There’s confusion and excitement about this,” said Pamela Seymour, executive director of the Shepherd’s Center of Kansas City.

Her agency was prepared to offer marketplace advice Tuesday until www.healthcare.gov, the insurance marketplace for Kansans and Missourians, temporarily froze. That left counselors with little to do.

“We’re telling people, ‘We’re having the same problems you are,’” Seymour said.

Even Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City was unable to get online to see the plans and prices they had put on the marketplace.

“We’re trying to punch the buttons like everyone else,” said Kelly Cannon, spokeswoman for Blue KC.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services scrambled to fix technical problems with the website, problems they blamed on higher-than-expected traffic. More than 2.8 million people visited the federal marketplace in the first 15 hours, officials said.

Many encountered a serious sticking point: A drop-down menu that asked for answers to security questions malfunctioned for several hours.

“Like every new law, every new product rollout, there are going to be some glitches in the sign-up process along the way that we will fix,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday. “I’ve been saying this from the start.”

Other administration officials and health insurance professionals reminded customers that the marketplaces will offer insurance for six months. There will be plenty of time, they said, to iron out the problems and provide coverage.

Consumers have until Dec. 15 to obtain coverage that starts on the first of next year.

Republicans reacted to the problems with a volley of I-told-you-sos.

“Yet another broken promise,” tweeted Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican.

U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, also a Kansas Republican, said in a statement that he tried to test the marketplace Tuesday.

“I was met with error messages, unfinished security forms and misspelled notices at every click,” he said, calling Obamacare “unworkable, unaffordable and increasingly unpopular.”

But some Republicans feared stories of first-day Obamacare snafus would be obscured by the debate over the government shutdown, hurting their attempt to repeal the law.

“The conservative media assured its audience the shutdown would not overshadow the Obamacare rollout glitches,” wrote conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin for the Washington Post. “So far, the coverage ratio is about 80-20 percent in favor of the shutdown.”

Federal officials put a positive spin on the rollout in an afternoon conference call with reporters. Speakers declined to say how many successful enrollees there were in the 36 participating states.

But, reporters were told, “The system is ready. People have been able to successfully complete the application, shop for plans and complete the enrollment process.”

Marketplace customers said they expected the process to take several visits to the website but seemed reluctant to assign blame for the first-day delays.

“It’s tedious,” said Mike Darby, 42, of Kansas City, after using the website for about 15 minutes. “But it’s all right. I need it. My job doesn’t offer (insurance) right now.”

Kansas Citian Gerald Chatman, 51, took a look at the process and then said he would seek an appointment for help.

“I hope I get some kind of insurance, sure,” he said. “Because my medicine costs a lot.”

Joyce White, a counselor at the Shepherd’s Center, said that patience will be important.

“It’s very frustrating,” she said. “We’re telling people, ‘Give us a week. Hold off a little bit.’”

Experts said they weren’t surprised by the number of uninsured seeking coverage through the marketplaces.

Typically, older enrollees are sicker and need more health services. But the administration and health insurers say it’s essential that younger, healthier workers enroll as well, in order to defray the added costs of health care for sicker clients.

Tuesday, it wasn’t clear how many of those younger customers were getting in line.

Much of Tuesday’s questions centered on prices. While public interest groups and reporters have outlined the sign-up procedure over several weeks, the actual prices for policies were only available Tuesday.

“Apparently a lot of people are expecting to find free health coverage,” said Cannon, of Blue KC, “so there’s still a lot of explaining.”

Kansas City-area consumers will be offered plans by two companies — Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City, and Coventry. Each firm is offering several different policies, depending on the state.

David T. Power, a health insurance broker with The Power Group, said agents are advising consumers to wait a couple of weeks for the computer system to become more available.

Marilyn Tavenner, an official with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said it was important to remember that “this is day one. … It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com. To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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