Monica Lieske had hoped to find affordable health insurance for her children the first day the Affordable Care Act online marketplaces opened.
She wound up leaving Lincoln’s Community Action Partnership empty-handed and frustrated, after several failed attempts Tuesday to access the new Obamacare online marketplaces.
“I assume, like everything else, when it starts it’s a challenge,” the Lincoln business owner and part-time public school employee said.
The first day of enrollment under the act, known as Obamacare, arrived with both fanfare and strife on the national political scene. But many of the millions who flooded the website trying to shop, compare and buy insurance encountered one roadblock after another.
The marketplaces’ computer site, healthcare.gov, remained balky Wednesday.
There were signs of demand for the policies that will be sold on the marketplaces. Shoppers in Nebraska and Iowa visited websites run by insurance companies, where they can review and, in some cases, buy the same policies offered on the marketplaces.
But only the marketplaces have side-by-side comparisons of all the insurance policies available under the Affordable Care Act in each state. And only the marketplaces can authorize tax credits and other subsidies, which depend on family incomes.
About 300 Iowans and 150 Nebraskans, plus 50 from other states, visited CoOportunity Health’s website on Tuesday to look at the plans it offers on the marketplaces. None bought policies, but at least they are looking at their options, spokeswoman Leigh McGivern said.
“We are waiting for our first enrollee,” she said. “We’re not necessarily encouraging people to sign up right away. They need to do a lot of thinking and maybe talk to a trusted adviser.”
Some people bought 2014 policies from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska on Tuesday through the company’s website. Spokesman Andy Williams said those individuals didn’t qualify for tax credits, so they didn’t need to visit the marketplace to buy their coverage.
The computer connection between Blue Cross and the federal website, healthcare.gov, still wasn’t working Wednesday morning, Williams said.
The computer problems attracted attention from critics of the law, some predicting the technical issues might spur a backlash. President Barack Obama countered that the high volume of visitors — 2.8 million on Tuesday for the federal website, 16,000 per second on California’s state-run website — gives “a sense of how important this is to millions of Americans.”
An additional 81,000 called the hotline at 800-318-2596 on Tuesday, and 60,000 had requested live chats.
“Anything short of a calamity on day one is a victory,” said Dan Mendelson, chief executive officer of Washington-based consultant Avalere Health LLC. “It’s all about message and repetition, and making sure it’s accessible.”
People trying the federal website — including community center staff trying to get insurance for low-income people — in many cases were unable to get past the screen that asks security questions as part of the process of creating individual registered accounts.
Marilyn Tavenner, director of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, acknowledged Tuesday that there had been “glitches” in the enrollment process. She described those as common “with any new product launch.”
“Keep in mind that this is day one of a six-month process,” Tavenner said. “We’re in a marathon, not a sprint.”
Funding for the marketplaces is through mandatory spending programs or sources not affected by the federal government shutdown that began Tuesday, said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Officials instead blamed some of Tuesday’s problems on the volume of people trying to get onto the website. By late afternoon Tusday, more than 2.8 million people had visited healthcare.gov.
Tavenner said some people successfully enrolled in insurance Tuesday through the federally operated marketplace, which serves 36 states including Nebraska and Iowa, and through state-operated versions. However, she declined to give enrollment figures yet.
Officials in Iowa and Nebraska urged patience and encouraged uninsured people to keep trying. They’re hoping the health law will cut significantly into the amount of uncompensated health care provided to uninsured people.
People have until Dec. 15 to enroll if they want a policy to start Jan. 1. The enrollment period for marketplace policies ends March 31.
In Nebraska, large numbers of people could remain without health coverage because the state opted against expanding its Medicaid program, as envisioned under the Affordable Care Act.
Iowa has a plan to expand coverage for such low-income people by combining Medicaid and private insurance.
Agencies tapped to help guide people through the enrollment process said some of the people calling them about Obamacare actually could qualify for the existing Medicaid or Medicare programs.
Medicaid is a state-federal program for low-income children, parents, the elderly and the disabled. Medicare is a federal program for the elderly and some disabled people.
Nebraska Medicaid workers fielded more calls than normal Tuesday, an increase that officials attributed to the start of Obamacare, said Russ Reno, a spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Roger Furrer, executive director of Community Action of Nebraska, said calls about Obamacare started coming in as soon as the statewide network was named as one of two agencies to provide navigator services in Nebraska.
The number of calls increased dramatically Tuesday.
“I can’t even finish an email,” Furrer said.
Maria Guadalupe Rodriguez, a 63-year-old Omahan who works in a hotel laundry service, went to OneWorld Community Health Center in South Omaha on Tuesday afternoon to see what the marketplace had to offer her. After learning that the website was not working, she said she would return.
She might have an even longer wait than others because the Spanish-language link on the website isn’t expected to work for several more weeks.
“I’m very disappointed,” Rodriguez said through an interpreter. “It’s necessary to have that going.”
Lieske, too, plans to try again, because she’s worried about not having coverage for her children, ages 16, 13 and 9. She and her husband have a high-deductible plan through their business, a children’s play center. The children were covered through Medicaid until two years ago, when she got a notice that her family’s income disqualified them.
She remains optimistic about the new marketplace options.
“Hopefully, we’ll get answers now and have a better life,” she said.
This report includes material from Bloomberg News.