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Computer glitches still ail some state health care signup sites

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, at 5:44 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, at 6:03 p.m.

— For the second straight day, computer problems continued to stymie online visitors hoping to compare health plans or enroll in coverage on state insurance marketplaces under the new health care law.

Federally operated websites and those run by states had similar problems as their computer systems once again struggled to accommodate large numbers of people trying to access the marketplaces at the same time.

The delays, crashes and glitches have marred the October debut of the marketplaces, which serve as a one-stop, online shopping mall for 2014 health insurance coverage required under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which provides the operating systems for 36 state marketplaces, is adding additional capacity to handle the high user volume. Nearly 5 million unique visits and 104,000 web chat requests were logged on the department’s healthcare.gov website on Tuesday, along with 190,000 calls to its 24-hour telephone call center, at 800-318-2596.

Those numbers “exceeded anyone’s expectations,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday on MSNBC. “We were planning on a lot of people being interested. We had no idea of quite how many.”

Sebelius said call center wait times had been reduced on Wednesday, and checks with the system showed this to be true. In separate calls, a reporter reached a human operator in less than 30 seconds.

The federal websites also performed better on Wednesday, but in states like Florida, many people were once again unable to get past the first step: creating an account necessary to verify eligibility for government subsidies, shop for health plans and enroll for coverage.

Florida’s federally run website had been jammed since Tuesday’s opening, and Wednesday was more of the same. Consumers at the Jessie Trice Community Health Center in Miami, where many of the area’s uninsured seek medical services, were still having no luck registering on the site.

Paul Salazar, a federally certified application counselor, was stationed with a laptop at the center, hoping to help people learn more about the health care law and apply for coverage through the website. But he ran into the same delays that millions encountered on the first day.

“At first, it was showing, ‘Page not found,’” he said, “and now it’s just saying there are too many people on the site and try again later.”

Kentucky’s state-run website resolved its computer problems about 3 p.m. Tuesday and enrolled 2,000 of nearly 90,000 site visitors into coverage on the first day, according to state officials.

California’s health exchange, Covered California, had 645,000 total visits to its website Tuesday between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. The exchange received 7,143 applications for insurance, said Covered California spokesman Larry Hicks. In all, its call centers received 19,000 phone calls, he said.

But in Maryland, where the state-run system crashed shortly after its 8 a.m. debut on Tuesday, users reported similar problems on Wednesday.

“It’s pretty much still very, very heavy traffic until it’s just bottlenecking the system and making it difficult for us to get in online,” said Sheila Mackertich, vice president of health reform initiatives at HealthCare Access Maryland, which has hired 33 “navigators” to help enroll people into coverage across the state.

With the system down, Mackertich said navigators were mainly educating the public about the ins and outs of the complicated health care law. They’re also offering to do paper applications, “but for the most part, we’re encouraging people to come back when the system comes up,” she said.

So far, though, computer problems have not appeared to frustrate consumers, Mackertich said.

“I think most of them weren’t ready to really enroll in anything just yet,” she said. “Most just want to find out, ‘Does this law affect me?’”

To help educate the public about Obamacare, Enroll America, a nonprofit health care enrollment organization, is launching a $5 million advertising campaign to encourage uninsured Americans to sign up for health coverage by messaging them on their computers, through social media and on their mobile phones.

Mary Meehan of the Lexington Herald-Leader, and Evan S. Benn, Patricia Borns and Daniel Chang of the Miami Herald contributed.

Email: tpugh@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @TonyPughDC

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