WASHINGTON – New online insurance marketplaces created by President Barack Obama’s health care law got off to a bumpy start across the nation Tuesday as a rush of consumers and a host of technical glitches slowed enrollment on the first day uninsured Americans could sign up for coverage.
Several states running their own marketplaces, including Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington, were forced to delay the rollout of their websites, even as other states reported that shoppers were signing up.
The federal government website that consumers in 36 states will use to get health coverage – www.healthcare.gov – repeatedly froze when consumers tried to create accounts, the first step in selecting a health plan.
Obama administration officials attributed some of the problems to high volume; 2.8 million people visited the federal website between midnight Tuesday morning and 3 p.m. EDT.
Additionally, 81,000 people called the help line, 1-800-318-2596, and 60,000 requested live online chats to get questions answered, according to the administration.
“We’re off to a good start,” said Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is overseeing the marketplaces. “People are signing up, and we’re pleased.”
Obama administration officials insisted they were addressing technical issues. But they refused to provide any data on the number of Americans who successfully enrolled in health coverage Tuesday.
Reports also persisted around the country of long waits on help lines run by state and federal officials. Maryland’s call center had to interrupt service Tuesday morning because of technical problems.
Critics of the law seized on the glitches. In a tweet to her followers, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Wash., called problems with the insurance marketplace in her state a “precursor to the complications to come.”
Experts said the opening-day setbacks wouldn’t seriously affect enrollment if they are resolved quickly.
Consumers have until March 31 of next year to select a health plan. Coverage starts in January.
“It is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Jon Kingsdale, who ran the state insurance marketplace in Massachusetts that was the model for the national law. “This is just the time when people are suiting up and tying the laces on their sneakers.”
The Affordable Care Act allows Americans who don’t get coverage through an employer to shop for health plans on new state-based insurance marketplaces.
Health plans for the first time must offer a basic set of benefits and are prohibited from turning away people with pre-existing medical conditions. Millions of low- and moderate-income Americans who make less than four times the federal poverty level – or about $46,000 for an individual – will qualify for government subsidies to help with their premiums.
Obama has made this new system of guaranteeing coverage a central selling point of the law. Administration officials hoped to minimize problems at a time when the law is under increasing scrutiny and facing heightened attacks from critics in Congress.
Despite the reported problems, state officials around the country reported that thousands of people were coming to their websites to seek coverage.