South Florida consumers reported a second consecutive day of technical problems on Wednesday that locked them out of the online health insurance exchange on HealthCare.gov that is key to the Affordable Care Act.
Wednesday marked day two of a six-month open enrollment period, during which eligible low- and middle-income consumers can sign up for subsidized health insurance through the federally run website.
But many who tried to take a look at the health plans were once again unable to get past the first step: creating an account necessary to verify subsidy eligibility, shop for plans and enroll for coverage. Others who said they were successful in creating accounts on Tuesday said they were unable to access their accounts again on Wednesday.
Officials with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency administering online exchanges in the 34 states that elected not to create their own, said the problems were due to an overwhelming number of people trying to access the website at once, and that they are adding capacity and streamlining the process.
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HealthCare.gov received more than 6.1 million unique visitors in the first 36 hours, according to federal officials.
Brian Cook, media relations director for CMS, issued a statement Wednesday saying some consumers had successfully enrolled through the federally run exchange and the 17 state-based exchanges on Tuesday but he did not say how many. He said the exchange call center received more than 190,000 calls and more than 104,000 web chats were requested.
“...While this overwhelming interest is continuing to cause wait times, there will be continuing improvements in the coming hours and days,’’ he said.
Consumers who visited the Jessie Trice Community Health Center in Brownsville, where many of the neighborhood’s uninsured seek medical services, still had no luck registering on the site Wednesday morning.
Paul Salazar, a federally-certified application counselor, was stationed with a laptop at the Trice center, hoping to help people learn about the health reform law and apply for coverage through the website.
He ran into the same delays that many 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.’’
Herman Edwards, development manager for the health center, said consumers interested in signing up for health plans through the exchange were being told to come back
“Hopefully,’’ he said, “everything will be smoothed out by next week, at the latest.’’
While many consumers were locked out during the first two days, some got in.
Robert Whitman, 56, of Miami, said he was successful logging onto HealthCare.gov on Tuesday, when he created a user account and answered questions about his income that would determine his eligibility for federal subsidies to help pay premiums and cost-sharing amounts. He also browsed plans.
But Whitman was unable to re-access the site with his user account information on Wednesday.
“It was kicked back to me that my account information is incorrect,’’ he said.
While Whitman said he’s not in a rush to buy a plan, he cannot afford to wait very long.
“I have a real urgency about finding out what’s coming,’’ he said, noting that his wife, Marie, 50, has a history of breast cancer in her family, and that she recently returned from a routine medical exam with a referral for additional exams.
Whitman said concern about his wife’s family history will drive their decision about what kind of plan to purchase.
He spent most of his time on the exchange Tuesday calculating his potential subsidy.
“That gave me a pretty good and detailed map of what I could expect, what I was going to pay, and what my options were going to be,’’ he said.
Whitman is a freelance television producer, and his wife is unemployed.
“My income is not up there,’’ he said. “My subsidy is close to 96 percent of the cost of the actual plan.’’
Whitman said that, after subsidies, the monthly premium on a silver plan for him and his wife will come to about $30, according to the information he received through the exchange.
But, Whitman said, he and his wife are going to wait until after her next doctor visit to choose a plan, which may mean a higher premium for more coverage.
“Once she knows that she’s clear, or that there’s doubt,’’ he said of his wife’s health, “that affects how she wants to get insured.’’
The Whitmans, who have been without health insurance since about 2000, say they want to be insured now.
“We were just back in the position of having to think like young people, wagering on being healthy,’’ he said. “It’s not a good bet when you’re 50.’’
All plans sold through the government-run exchange will be required to cover ten “essential” health benefits, including hospitalization, emergency medical care and prescription drugs.
Plans will be divided by metal tiers, with bronze-level plans covering 60 percent of the benefit costs and consumers responsible for the remaining 40 percent. Silver plans will cover 70 percent of benefit costs; gold plans will cover 80 percent; and platinum plans will cover 90 percent. Catastrophic plans will be available for those up to age 30 or those who are exempt from the law’s mandate requiring individuals to purchase health insurance.
Typically, the higher the percentage of costs covered, the higher the premiums.
At the Miami Beach offices of Benefits Design Resources, William Warren is one of hundreds of Florida insurance agents who took the online federal training certification course to sell subsidized health plans on the exchange.
Unable to get past a message on HealthCare.gov Wednesday that read “We have a lot of visitors on the site right now,’’ Warren said he was not concerned.
Enrollment runs through March 31, though consumers must sign up by Dec. 15 for coverage to begin Jan. 1
“I estimate in another two to three weeks, it will be a lot easier,’’ Warren said.
For now, Warren said, he is reassuring callers and telling them, “It’s not like we need to do this today.’’
Plus, he said, plans can vary in prices and benefits.
“I don’t want to be the first one out there trying this,’’ he said. “It’s like buying a new car fresh off the assembly line: You want other people trying it before you. Give it a couple of weeks to work itself out.’’
Federal officials have also pointed consumers to resources other than the website: a toll-free number, 800-318-2596, with live operators offering help in 150 languages, a live chat function on the online exchange and a network of in-person assistors.
Prices for health plans in states with federally-run exchanges were posted to HealthCare.gov late Tuesday afternoon, giving consumers a glimpse at the many plans and prices offered by insurers. But the posting did not include important plan details such as provider networks, deductibles and copays.
This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with The Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.