WASHINGTON -- The nationwide launch of the new online health insurance marketplaces got off to a rocky start on Tuesday.
Websites malfunctioned and crashed in some states and stalled in others because of a combination of technical problems and the millions of people who overwhelmed the systems trying to get their first glimpse of the new coverage offerings.
The 36 states that use federal systems to run their marketplaces had online enrollment problems early and often as slow, clunky website navigation caused long delays for online users shortly after 8 a.m., when the six-month open enrollment period for 2014 coverage began.
The three dozen states include 27 federally run marketplaces; seven jointly run by the federal government and the states; and New Mexico and Idaho, which each operates a state-run marketplace that uses the federal computer system.
Because all 36 use the same computer system, they all experienced virtually the same types of problems, like on-screen dropdown menus that wouldn’t work properly. The malfunctions prevented users from creating individual marketplace accounts, which halted their online enrollment efforts for hours in states like Missouri, Illinois, Florida, Michigan and Virginia.
In Kansas City, Mo., Leonard Hopkins was unable to find coverage for his daughter after spending 90 minutes on the state’s federally run marketplace website.
“I have tried calling the help center and got an automated system which couldn’t help,” he said in an email. “Tried using the ‘chat’ service and was told they would connect with someone who could help when available. Waited 10 minutes and then was disconnected.”
Even the 17 states that run their own marketplaces experienced similar breakdowns. Hawaii’s system crashed. Online enrollment in Maryland was halted shortly after 8 a.m. due to “bottlenecking” caused by 300,000 page visits by 87,000 unique visitors by midafternoon, said Carolyn Quattrocki, executive director of the governor’s office of health care reform.
Federal Department of Health and Human Services officials said the problems resulted from a high volume of web users and technical glitches.
“We, likewise, received word that some users were having difficulty creating accounts,” Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a telephone briefing Tuesday afternoon. “So we did two things: We added capacity and we made some adjustments to the system to handle that. And I think you’ll find it much improved today.”
The problems didn’t come as a surprise. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius warned on Monday that technical issues would arise in the marketplace rollouts. But the extent of the problems caught many by surprise and left agency officials forced to play defense.
“This work represents more than three years of policy and operations coming together. This has never been done before and this is a historic moment,” Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, deputy director of the federal Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, said in the telephone briefing. “If you look at what we have just experienced in the last 15 hours, the first that we have actually been open, we have seen more simultaneous users to our website than we have ever seen on Medicare.gov. We think that’s a tremendous beginning to this program and we are off to a good start.”