NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The online insurance marketplaces that are at the heart of President Barack Obama’s healthcare 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.
Speaking Tuesday from the Rose Garden, Obama blamed some of the website slowdown on the fact that more than 1 million people visited Healthcare.gov before 7 a.m., adding that demand had initially exceeded anything officials expected.
“Consider that just a couple of weeks ago, Apple rolled out a new mobile operating system and within days they found a glitch, so they fixed it,” Obama said. “I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t.”
People visiting the NY State of Health website after its launch at 8 a.m. Tuesday were greeted with error messages when clicking on links to register as individuals or families.
The links for employers, employees and brokers also experienced periodic problems.
“The website went on the blink twice and I just had to abandon it,” unemployed diabetic Shanti Masterson told CBS 2’s Amy Dardashtian. “After creating an account I logged onto the homepage. I’m clicking ‘get started,’ error page. Let’s try this again. Homepage, get started, error page again.”
Even employees at a help center on Southern Boulevard couldn’t get past the homepage.
“It’s too confusing. It’s not user friendly,” one employee said. “It’s confusing for us as well, so I can imagine what its like for customers.”
Single mother Carmen Colon said she had so many questions, but couldn’t get straight answers.
“Is it gonna cover everything? What about emergency visits? How much is it gonna cost?” Colon said.
Alfredo Piedra is a medical librarian at the Queens Library.
“The seniors and low income people, they have a hard time with computer literacy,” Piedra said.
The Queens Library is one of dozens of spots set up to help people enroll. There are consumer health sections and employees are trained to take customers through the process step by step
Piedra said you shouldn’t just purchase based on cost because while premiums may be low, out-of-pocket costs could be high later on. Here are some questions to ask:
How much is a premium? How much is a deductible? What does the plan cover?
Masterson said she is hoping her doctor is in network.
“I’m hoping that by the time I go back home the system will be back again so I can try. I’ll call the number also,’ she said.
A spokesman for the Department of Health blamed the problems on the 2 million visits to the website in the first 90 minutes after its launch. He said the agency’s technicians were working to fix the problem.
In Connecticut, 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.
The nationwide rollout comes after months of buildup in which the marketplaces, also known as exchanges, have been both praised and vilified.
Illustrating the heated political disagreements over the law, the opening of the exchanges came the same day as the shutdown of the federal government, led by congressional Republicans who want to block the health insurance reforms from taking effect.
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.
The marketplaces represent a turning point in the nation’s approach to healthcare, the biggest expansion in coverage in nearly 50 years.
The Obama administration hopes to sign up 7 million people during the first year and aims to eventually sign up at least half of the nearly 50 million uninsured Americans through an expansion of Medicaid or government-subsidized plans.
But if people become frustrated with glitches in the computer-based enrollment process and turn away from the program, the prospects for Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement could dim.
“The promise of the law is that no one will go bankrupt because of medical bills,” said Neera Tanden, president of the
Center for American Progress, which helped work for passage of the law. “It won’t happen in the first day or the first year. But when the law is fully operational, it will provide an economic benefit to roughly 30 million Americans.”
Tanden cautioned against rushing to judge the marketplace’s success on its first-day performance. Numerous observers have predicted bugs and setbacks. Trained outreach workers in many states were having trouble getting the certification they need to start helping people to enroll.
Many states are predicting that people will initially test the online application system, but actually sign up closer to Dec. 15, which is the deadline for coverage to start Jan. 1. Customers have until the end of March to sign up in order to avoid tax penalties.
New York was among the first to have its exchange approved by the federal government.
The state expects to enroll 1.1 million uninsured over the next three years, with 650,000 joining plans for individuals, including sole proprietors of businesses, and another 450,000 joining the plans available to small businesses with 50 or fewer employees.
Monthly premiums range from $134 for catastrophic coverage in the greater Rochester area to $913 for a particular “platinum” plan on Long Island.
New York Secretary of State Cesar Perales was in Queens on Tuesday giving out information to assist residents signing up for the Affordable Care Act.
Carmen Quintuna of Glendale, Queens was looking to sign up for the so-called individual mandate for her family of four.