J. David Ake, Associated Press
CHICAGO — Illinois residents got their first opportunity Tuesday to comparison shop for health insurance on a new marketplace that state officials hope will help an estimated 1.8 uninsured get coverage.
A state official said a call center to answer consumer questions was up and running Tuesday morning, with few problems. But, as anticipated, some early-bird consumers were running into hitches, including a backup with an online marketplace signup.
Sue Winking, of Quincy, said she had run into error messages when she tried to access the marketplace through Illinois' website.
"I've been trying for an hour," the 55-year-old unemployed woman told The Associated Press by telephone. "I've been trying, and I'm not going to give up. I understand there are millions of people trying to do this, so I'm patient."
Kelly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the new Illinois marketplace, said the state's call-center had handled more than 40 calls by 9:30 a.m. "No issues," she said in an email.
The marketplace, called Get Covered Illinois, is one of the key components of President Barack Obama's health care law. Consumers can go online to compare plans and rates, and to learn if they qualify for federal tax credits to help defray some of the cost. The state also opened a call center where staff can field questions, and county health departments, health centers and community organizations have trained workers on hand to help people with the process.
Illinois also launched a $33 million advertising campaign to inform residents about the marketplace.
Still, officials are expecting a slow rollout. A survey released Monday showed most Illinois residents were unaware of the program, and Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos said people should take some time to weigh their options and not feel as though they have to enroll immediately.
Though the law requires almost everyone to have health insurance, consumers have until the end of March to do so and avoid penalties for 2014. People who want their coverage to begin Jan. 1 must enroll by Dec. 15.
At West Side Health Authority in Chicago, two people had come in to try to enroll as of late morning. Director Percy Giles said the agency intentionally didn't schedule many appointments for Tuesday.
"We have more appointments tomorrow than today because we wanted to get the kinks out," he said.
He also said the day's big goal was just to get someone to sign up "so we know we can do it."
But one of the first to give it a shot, Helen January, ran into problems. Even with the help of a trained staffer January couldn't complete the process Tuesday because of a glitch with the website.
"It was very simple. She was there to help me with it," January said. "We just couldn't get all the way through."
January, who has a series of health problems including high blood pressure and diabetes, said she planned to come back another day. The 57-year-old from Melrose Park works part-time and doesn't have insurance.
"Either (employers) aren't giving it out or you get it and it's more than your check," she said. "It defeats the purpose."
Winking said the marketplace couldn't arrive soon enough for her. She has multiple sclerosis, lost her job fundraising for nonprofits in January and had been getting by with a severance package that included insurance coverage until that financial cushion ended in July. Since then, she has collected about $1,500 in monthly unemployment benefits — just $200 more than what her household is paying for COBRA insurance coverage.
She anticipates the cost of a plan through the marketplace will be far cheaper.
"I cannot wait to see what it ends up being," she said Tuesday while she tried the website.
Not everyone shared her enthusiasm. Tuesday's launch comes on the same day as a threatened shutdown of the federal government, led by congressional Republicans who want to block the law from taking effect, though a shutdown would have no immediate effect on the marketplaces.
Associated Press writer Jim Suhr in St. Louis and Don Babwin in Chicago contributed.
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