Dollars & Sense

Federal health exchange still stymies consumers

Updated: 2013-10-03T03:53:59Z

By DIANE STAFFORD

The Kansas City Star

It’s the glitch that persists. On Wednesday, the second day of the online health marketplaces, visitors to heathcare.gov continued to be thwarted by access problems.

Obama administration officials said logins to the webpage — where private insurance companies are offering an array of policies to consumers — were far heavier than expected. They reported 4.7 million unique users in the first 24 hours.

Health and Human Services officials declined to specify what caused the computer access problems except to say computer capacity was being added. A spokeswoman said there were successful enrollments around the country but declined to give a number.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City, a participating insurer, said it sold one policy through the federal exchange Tuesday and a few more Wednesday. Spokeswoman Kelly Cannon was unable to provide a specific number but said users were having an easier time completing the enrollment process.

Still, would-be users in the Kansas City area reported waiting more than an hour to get beyond the welcome screen for the federal site that’s available to Kansans and Missourians. Few were able to move deeper into the site.

“I’ve been trying all day with no luck,” said Joyce White, an official site “navigator” at the Shepherd’s Center. “We can’t create accounts or look at the plans.”

Navigators are supported by federal grants and are trained to help consumers use the insurance marketplaces, a part of the Affordable Care Act that went into effect Tuesday. In addition to helping with website navigation, the government also is funding a telephone help line that received 190,000 calls on the first day, a Health and Human Services spokeswoman said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, several Kansas City area navigators said they had been unable to get past an early enrollment step that requires users to use a drop-down menu to answer security questions.

“People are anxious to see the plans, see the costs and know whether it will be affordable or not,” White said. “But we’re just telling them to be patient. They have until Dec. 15 to enroll for coverage beginning Jan. 1.”

The Affordable Care Act requires individuals to have health insurance coverage for 2014. Consumers can buy policies up to the end of March to avoid tax penalties for not having coverage.

At Swope Health Center, another site with trained navigators, “We’re putting off application appointments until next week to give the government time to work out the bugs,” said Dan Barnett, a Swope spokesman.

Barnett, like other health care officials in the metro area, said he was getting no information about the specific problems plaguing the site. Some speculated that the partial federal government shutdown furloughed workers who were needed to make the website run efficiently.

But federal officials had said Tuesday that the government shutdown would not affect implementation of this aspect of Obamacare because its operation came from a separately allocated budget.

Regardless of when the bugs are worked out, federal officials said they wouldn’t release data on how many people had enrolled until mid-November.

Supporters said the flood of consumer interest showed how much Obamacare was wanted by people who need health care insurance. Opponents said the website problems were just another indication that big government wasn’t the answer.

The website problems were widespread in the states using the federal marketplace, and some states that established their own state insurance exchanges also had overload problems.

California, for example, temporarily shut down its state site Tuesday night until mid morning Wednesday to upgrade its performance. The state said 7,770 users had started applications by then.

Kentucky, on the other hand, said its state-run exchange was working well and that 1,833 users had signed up for coverage by 8 a.m. Wednesday.

The state and federal marketplaces are designed for people who don’t have health insurance through employment-based plans, Medicare, Medicaid or other group coverage.

Private insurance companies have agreed to offer policies for sale on the marketplaces. Consumers who buy policies through the marketplaces may be eligible for federal subsidies in the form of tax credits, depending on their incomes and policies.

Kansas City area consumers will find policy choices offered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Coventry, the companies that agreed to participate on the federal marketplace in Kansas and Missouri.

The rollout problems were not unexpected. The marketplace, also known as an exchange, is a complex computer system that ties in insurance companies and state and federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service.

The congressional Government Accountability Office said three months ago that a timely and smooth opening couldn’t be guaranteed because of the short time frame for implementation and the lack of system testing beforehand.

Some navigators said they had encountered an enrollment stumbling block that was more basic than the webpage bottleneck: Consumers who don’t have email addresses are unable to use the insurance site.

Federal authorities point out that a telephone option is available. And some users, who lack computers or were frustrated by the waits, told reporters that they already had mailed in paper applications for coverage.

Star news services contributed to this report.

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

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