Obamacare insurance websites off to rocky start

Americans trying to sign up for a new health insurance plan through the online marketplaces that opened for business last week are still having trouble because of glitches with the websites. The White House promises the problems are being fixed.

Millions eager to sign up, but many shunted to 'waiting room'

Phoenix College freshman Willow Kanowshy listens during an Affordable Care Act information session held last week after the launch of the online health insurance exchanges. The websites have been plagued with glitches that have prevented some people from signing up. (Mark Henle/Arizona Republic/Associated Press)

Many Americans eager to sign up for a new health insurance plan through the online exchanges that launched last week amid fanfare and controversy are being kept in a virtual waiting room.

They’ll need some real relief, however, to calm their nerves and ease the headaches caused by trying to use the websites that went live on Oct.1. It has been a messy rollout for the centrepiece of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act — dubbed Obamacare.

Millions of Americans clicked on or on individual state-run websites, and while some had no trouble filling out an application for coverage, others got error messages, blank pages, or crashes.

Key Obamacare law kicks in amid confusion and shutdown

“The administration dropped the ball and all I hear are excuses,” wrote Jerry Gifford on the federal Health Department’s Facebook page. Tanya Schlegel wrote that she was keen to sign up but couldn’t create an account on the website. “Feeling frustrated!”

The Health Insurance Marketplace, as it’s formally known, kicked off the same day the U.S. government shut down because of a deadlock in Congress over a spending bill. The House Republicans want parts of Obamacare delayed or defunded as a condition of passing the bill, and the Democrats won't agree.

There is a federally run website that is handling enrolment for about 30 states and there are state-run websites that allow uninsured Americans to shop for coverage plans and check if they are eligible for a government subsidy. They can pick the insurance plan that fits their needs, sign up, and coverage would begin Jan.1

Between the shutdown and the computer glitches, it hasn’t exactly been the smoothest launch for the much-hyped online exchanges that incidentally were partly built by Canadian tech giant CGI.

Users in virtual 'waiting room'

Officials at first blamed the problems on high traffic — more than 10 million hits were registered on the websites combined within the first 24 hours — but it has since emerged that there are problems with the software that have prevented people from creating accounts.

The website was shut down overnight Monday for maintenance and officials said they are hard at work on fixing the glitches, which were expected, they added.

“CMS has put up a gate at the front end of the system that places visitors into a waiting room and lets them in at a particular pace, so that the surge in volume does not cause the problems that it caused in the past,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday, referring to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the department responsible.

“CMS has simultaneously been working intensively around the clock to address the drivers of this issue. And thus far, we've reduced waiting room times by a third and are increasingly moving more users through the system.”

Carney has spent part of his daily briefings all week defending Obamacare and giving his assurances that the website problems are being fixed.

“Each day this is going to get better,” he said Wednesday. “People are working overnight to make improvements to the website.”

But what if some users have given up without signing up? The government is trying to remind Americans that they have plenty of time to register. The deadline is Dec. 15 for coverage that starts Jan.1. They can wait it out and sign up in a few weeks when the kinks have been ironed out since there is no advantage to signing up immediately.

No data yet on sign-ups

The question, though, is whether frustrated users will be persistent and keep coming back to the website until they are successful or if they will decide it’s not worth the trouble.

The glitches are giving fodder to Republicans who are vehemently opposed to the Affordable Care Act, which was passed in 2010. Republicans say the troubled launch proves that Obamacare wasn’t “ready for prime time.” The Democrats, on the other hand, say the high web traffic and calls to a helpline prove the health-care reform is in demand.

For now there are no fresh numbers on how many people across the country have signed up for health insurance who didn’t have it before or how many people switched their plans to get a better price. Enrolment data are expected to be released in November and then subsequently on a month-by-month basis.

In the meantime, the public relations campaigns by both Democrats and Republicans will continue and those who are determined to get health insurance online will stay in the waiting room until their number is called.


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