Health insurance marketplace off to shaky start – in Kansas and elsewhere

As in much of America, the Affordable Care Act’s new insurance marketplace system got off to a shaky start in Kansas on Tuesday with widespread reports that the enrollment website was inaccessible most of the day.

State and local insurance and health-care officials counseled patience, reminding people who don’t have insurance that they have until Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage in the Obamacare marketplace, and, if eligible, subsidies to help pay for it.

It was impossible to tell how many Kansans who visited the federally run website at actually got through and completed enrollment, if any, said Linda Sheppard, director of health care policy for the state Insurance Department.

She said the department had contacted federal officials and expect to get the information within a few days.

The state Insurance Department’s involvement is largely limited to explaining and helping people access the federal system, because Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature passed on the opportunity for Kansas to set up its own exchange and run it.

Nationwide, states that operate their own enrollment sites reported widely varying levels of traffic, but most said the systems were working, though with some problems caused by system overload.

In the first few hours that their exchanges were operating, New York state’s reported 2 million visits, Kentucky’s 24,000, Illinois’ more than 45,000 and Connecticut’s 14,000. Most of those people were browsing and comparing options; the numbers attempting to enroll in an insurance plan were far smaller, and there were more problems reported with that process.

Sheppard said she had contacted an associate in Colorado who had consulted for Kansas before the state scrapped plans for its own exchange and he told her that after some initial glitches, that state-run system was up and getting people enrolled.

Speaking at the White House, President Obama said that more than 1 million people had visited the federal site by 7 a.m., more than five times as much traffic as experienced by Medicare’s website.

He said his administration would fix technical problems and adjust to “this demand that exceeds anything that we had expected.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor in charge of the system, compared the exchanges to Apple Inc.’s new mobile operating system, which the company upgraded days after its debut to correct a flaw.

“No one is calling on Apple to stop selling devices for a year or to get out of the business,” Sebelius said. “It’s a reminder that we’re likely to have some glitches. We’ll fix them and move on.”

At GraceMed Clinic, one of several sites in Wichita with “navigators” trained to help people with their enrollment, about a dozen people had tried to enroll Tuesday by early afternoon.

None succeeded, said Dave Sanford, executive director of the clinic that primarily provides medical services to uninsured and low-income people.

But he said it wasn’t unexpected and that he’s not especially concerned.

Officials say delaying a few weeks won’t make any difference. The coverage and subsidies don’t begin until Jan. 1, and consumers have until Dec. 15 to complete enrollment to hit that target date.

Even those who don’t make that deadline can enroll through March 31 – although those who wait that long may have to wait as much as six weeks for their benefits to take effect, said Juven Nava, a navigator who is overseeing the process at GraceMed.

Those who apply before the 15th of a given month will have their coverage start the first day of the next month, while those who enroll after the 15th will have to wait for the first of the following month, Nava said.

He said those who showed up Tuesday were given appointments to come back to try again.

“It’s not like they have to do it today,” he said.

Implementation of the ACA has led to some strange political alignment.

In 2009, the Wichita Independent Business Association hosted a gathering of conservative Republican state lawmakers who proposed the Kansas Health Care Freedom Amendment, which sought to exempt Kansans from having to comply with the federal act.

With WIBA backing, the amendment passed into law as a Kansas statute, although most legal experts agree it’s not enforceable because of its conflict with federal law.

Today, WIBA is one of several local nonprofit groups receiving federal grant funds to hire a navigator; in its case to help small-business owners get coverage for themselves and/or their employees.

“We’ve been consistent, I think, all the way,” said Tim Witsman, president of WIBA. “If you ask our members, they don’t want it. But once it’s passed, it’s the law and then I have to do what’s best for them.”

State lawmakers haven’t given up fighting the ACA. They’re holding firm with the anti-Obamacare forces in Congress who have battled against implementing it to the point where the impasse has shut down many government services.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, said he tried to access the site in the early morning hours Tuesday and couldn’t.

It was an I-told-you-so moment for Huelskamp, who has fought to repeal and/or delay implementation of the ACA at every opportunity.

“We have been warned time and time again that Obamacare is not ready for prime time,” Huelskamp said in an e-mail he sent out at 1:21 a.m. Tuesday. “Well, it turns out that is right. When I tried to sign up for the exchanges, I was met with error messages, unfinished security forms, and misspelled notices at every click.”

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, reported a similar experience when he visited the website.

Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger and her staff had predicted that heavy traffic and the overall magnitude of the change – 35 other states are also using the federal exchange – would cause problems on the first day.

For weeks, Praeger and her staff have been criss-crossing the state holding information meetings.

They’ve been urging people not to try to enroll until the initial burst of activity is over and the federal officials running the system have had a chance to work the kinks out.

“We’ve been saying for people to wait two or three weeks,” Sheppard said.

Contributing: Eagle Washington Bureau, Bloomberg News, New York Times News Service

Related stories from Wichita Eagle