Health care law enrollment period launches with glitchy websites and long waits

By Carla K. Johnson

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1 2013 11:28 a.m. MDT

In this March 23, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama signs the health care bill in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

J. Scott Applewhite, File, Associated Press

CHICAGO — The online insurance marketplaces that are at the heart of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul struggled to handle the wave of new consumers Tuesday, the first day of a six-month open-enrollment period.

A combination of high demand and technical glitches seemed to overwhelm the online system early in the day. Federal and state officials were working to address the problems, which led to long waits on government websites and a federal call center.

Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said that more than 1 million people had visited HealthCare.gov in the last day — five times more users than have ever been on the Medicare.gov at one time.

Kimberly Shockley — logging in from Houston, Texas — and Mike Weaver, who lives in rural southern Illinois, ran into similar glitches: They could not get past the security questions while trying to set up their personal accounts through healthcare.gov.

"I'm frustrated, very frustrated," said Shockley, a self-employed CPA. She spent more than an hour trying to get the security questions to work Tuesday morning without success. When she clicked on a drop-down menu of suggested security questions, none appeared. She then tried to create her own questions, but that didn't work either.

Weaver, a self-employed photographer, said he also ran into problems with the drop-down menus. And when they started working, he still wasn't able to set up his account.

"The first day of something that you know is going to have a lot of bugs, it's not that frustrating," he said. "If it was the last day to sign up ... then I'd be terribly frustrated."

Shockley has health insurance, but is looking for a better plan. Weaver is uninsured.

State-operated sites also experienced glitches. Rhode Island's site opened as scheduled, but was quickly overwhelmed by visitors and went down. A spokesman for the New York Department of Health blamed problems with the 2 million visits to the website in the first 90 minutes after its launch. Washington state's marketplace used Twitter to thank users for their patience.

Exchange officials in Colorado said their website would not be fully functional for the first month, although consumers will be able to get help applying for government subsidies during that time.

Connecticut seemed to be a bright spot. Access Health CT sent out a tweet shortly before noon Tuesday, confirming the marketplace logged 10,000 visitors in the first three hours of operation and 22 enrollments. A family of three was the first to sign up for coverage.

In Portsmouth, N.H., Deborah Lielasus tried to sign up for coverage but got only as far as creating an account before the website stopped working. She said she expected glitches.

Lielasus, a 54-year-old self-employed grant writer, currently spends about $8,500 a year in premiums and more than $10,000 for out-of-pocket expenses because she has a health condition and her only option was a state high-risk insurance pool. She said she expects those costs to decrease significantly.

As excited as she was to sign up, she said, her anticipation was tempered by dismay over the government shutdown that was led by congressional Republicans who want to block the health insurance reforms.

"I'm really happy that this is happening, that this is being launched ... I feel like it's a child caught in the middle of a really bad divorce," Lielasus said.

The nationwide rollout comes after months of buildup in which the marketplaces have been both praised and vilified.

The shutdown will have no immediate effect on the insurance marketplaces that are the backbone of the law, because they operate with money that isn't subject to the annual budget wrangling in Washington.

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