Rocky first day for Obamacare website
Even big supporters of Obamacare predicted glitches, and some lingering confusion, for today's grand opening of the health insurance marketplaces. Early today, those predictions have been on target.
The shopping exchanges are a key provision of President Obama's signature health law, the Affordable Care Act. Healthcare.gov is the portal designed to allow uninsured shoppers to compare prices and buy insurance.
In New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, the federal government is running the insurance marketplaces. They were slated to go live at 8 a.m., but early on, system error messages were common. As well as this cheery message: "We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we're working to make your experience here better. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience!"
The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center is a longtime advocate of the Affordable Care Act. The group's Executive Director Sharon Ward called on shoppers to be flexible and make use of off-line options, such as "navigators" hired to help people through the application process.
"Know that if they run into problems on the website there are other opportunities to get information through the toll-free numbers, or through in-person assistance with the navigators, or trusted non-profit partners in their community," Ward said.
Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Fabien Levy reiterated that point.
"There were five times more users on the Marketplace website this morning than have ever been on the Medicare.gov at one time," Levy said. "We have built a dynamic system and expect to speed up the system in the coming hours."
Outreach efforts stalled
St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, Pa., is holding "office hours" of sorts throughout October to help local people learn about their insurance options.
The hospital's outreach center got its first insurance shopper today, but when counselors were unable to login to Healthcare.gov, they had to reschedule the woman's appointment.
Hospital spokesman Lori Palmer said St. Mary plans to keep its outreach centers open, but urged consumers to check back, while the federal government smooths snags in the website operations.
"Calling ahead would be helpful," Palmer said.
St. Mary's counselors are also combating lingering confusion, Palmer said, about exactly what's happening today. Yesterday, many callers to the hospital's hotline were people older than age 65, who are already enrolled in Medicare.
Medicare and Obamacare are on separate tracks. Today's opening of the new insurance marketplaces is a non-event for the roughly 50 million Americans who get coverage through Medicare.
Shutdown is separate
Today is also Day One of a federal government shutdown. The dispute has largely been an attempt to delay the rollout. The shutdown does not itself block the online marketplaces from opening for business.
Monday afternoon, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said navigators and other federally funded marketplaces assistors will work throughout the shutdown.
"Shut down or no shut down we're ready to go," Sebelius said.