Web traffic, glitches slow Obamacare exchanges launch

Reuters

By David Morgan and Caroline Humer

Oct 1 (Reuters) - Technical glitches and heavy internettraffic slowed Tuesday's launch of new online insuranceexchanges at the heart of President Barack Obama's healthcarereform, showcasing the challenge of covering millions ofuninsured Americans.

The opening itself represented a victory for Obama'ssignature domestic policy achievement after years of attack fromRepublican foes and delays in building the technologyinfrastructure to support sites in 50 U.S. states. It defied apartial federal government shutdown precipitated by Republicanefforts to delay the law's implementation.

"As long as I'm president I won't give in to recklessdemands by some in the Republican Party to deny affordablehealth insurance to millions of hard-working Americans," Obamasaid in the White House Rose Garden after his meeting withpeople who stand to benefit from the healthcare overhaul.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonlyknown as Obamacare, will provide subsidized health insurancebased on income through the state exchanges and expand Medicaidcoverage for the poor from Jan. 1, representing the mostambitious U.S. social program since Medicare plans for theelderly launched in the 1960s.

Reuters checks in at least 47 states throughout the dayturned up frequent error messages or traffic overload notices,particularly for 36 sites run by the federal government. Onefrequently observed glitch involved a page asking the user toanswer security questions that either went blank or would notaccept new data. Kansas officials urged residents to wait a fewweeks for the "bugs" to be worked out before enrolling.

The Department of Health and Human Services said 2.8 millionpeople visited the federal HealthCare.gov since midnight, with81,000 reaching out to call centers and 60,000 requesting livechats. The department did not provide details on the source ofthe traffic or the number of visitors who applied for healthinsurance, but said it was working to speed up the site.

"We think we're off to a good start," said Marilyn Tavenner,head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, whichoversees the new exchange.

The performance of state-run exchanges was mixed, with usersin Connecticut, Rhode Island and California able to createprofiles. Kentucky said it had processed more than 1,000insurance applications, while Colorado said 1,300 user accountshad been created. Maryland delayed its launch by hours. When itwent live, access stalled for some users.

Chris Carlin, a 25-year-old student and part-time workerfrom the Los Angeles area, said he was unable to access healthplan details on the California exchange, but would keep trying.

"This is a huge deal for me," he said. "I haven't had healthinsurance since high school - that's been 7 years."

Anna and Dennis Franks, a Utah couple in their 60s, droveabout 40 miles from their home in Ogden with friends to attend amarketplace launch event in Salt Lake City. The couple wasunable to compare health plans or enroll online, but they wereundeterred. "We'll wait for all the hoopla to settle down,"Dennis Franks said.

Jonna Bady and Antonio Hill, a couple in their 20s, made anappointment to enroll on Tuesday in Chicago, and expected toqualify for Medicaid. The website was down when they arrived.

Asked why she came on the first day of open enrollment, Badysaid: "It's important. I know other people are going to come. Iwant to get in early."

To participate in a survey about your experience signingonto an exchange, please click on: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ReutersExchanges.

ANTICIPATING HITCHES

The administration had predicted hitches that could lastduring the first few weeks of enrollment, which runs through theend of March. Even before Tuesday's launch, officials last weekannounced delays for federal exchanges geared toward Spanishspeakers and small businesses.

"It's very significant for the political campaign but notfor the enrollment campaign," said Jon Kingsdale, the formerhead of the Massachusetts state health exchange, which opened in2006 and became the model for Obamacare.

Kingsdale said that if the problems persist until November,"that is really a big problem."

The snags have become a focus of the fight between Obama'sDemocratic Party and the Republican Party over whether the 2010Affordable Care Act will succeed. Republicans have blamed itsrequirements for pushing up the cost of health insurance forbusiness and individuals.

"These exchanges are going live today with too manyunanswered questions and too many unsolved problems," OrrinHatch, a Republican senator from Utah said in a speech on theSenate floor. "The Obama administration should have acknowledgedthe ample warning signs of problems in the exchanges and heededthe many calls for delay."

It was not clear if the problems signaled overwhelminginterest in signing up for insurance, a lack of capacity orconnectivity for state or federal systems, or even some kind ofintrusion by Obamacare's opponents. New York, for example,reported 7.5 million visitors, hobbling its site for hours. Anestimated 2.5 million New Yorkers are uninsured.

"The level of functionality they're offering today is worsethan we might have anticipated. I expected a level where youcould at least get to the point of shopping," said AustinBordelon, an analyst with healthcare consulting group LeavittPartners, who monitored federal and state marketplaces throughthe day. "But really, you just can't get through the door."

The marketplaces require health plans to provide a broadrange of essential benefits that were not necessarily part ofindividual policies in the past, including mental healthservices, birth control and preventive care.

The coverage is linked to other insurance market reforms andnew consumer safeguards, including a ban on discrimination basedon gender or pre-existing health problems.

The new law also includes a mandate that healthy people gethealth insurance or pay a fine - major bone of contention withRepublicans.

"I pay for car insurance. I can pay for health insurance,"said Carlin, the young Californian looking to sign up.

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