By David Morgan and Lewis Krauskopf
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Access to new onlinehealth insurance exchanges remained limited on Thursday formillions of Americans seeking information on Obamacare benefits,creating a backlog of the uninsured seeking coverage.
Local health clinics, nonprofit community groups and othershave stepped forward to assist would-be beneficiaries in person.They saw an unexpected influx of phone calls and walk-in visitsfrom uninsured people who couldn't access their state's onlinemarketplace due to heavy traffic and technical problems.
Community health clinics in Miami and other Florida citieshave seen crowds of people, some lining up outside the door asearly as 7 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT). Florida's exchange is beinghandled by the federal government's Healthcare.gov site, whichhas stalled for many users in the 36 states it serves.
"There have been so many issues with online enrollmentbecause of glitches. But we've been able to take down a ton ofinformation from people so that they can come back and completethe process as soon as the computer glitches get resolved," saidAndy Behrman of the Florida Association of Community HealthCenters, which has 50 facilities in Florida.
One of the association's clinics in Miami-Dade County had260 visitors in one day, while others saw similar traffic.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) saidon Thursday that 7 million visitors have logged ontoHealthcare.gov. A federal call center has also fielded 295,000telephone calls.
To share your experience with the online exchanges, see: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ReutersExchanges
Officials are quick to emphasize that the number of websitehits is unlikely to bear any correlation to a much smallernumber of actual enrollments in the exchanges' first week. Butthey expect the number of Americans completing applications tospike in November and December for people intent on havingbenefits available on Jan. 1.
Technical experts worked around the clock to expand thecapacity of the federal system. Officials said improvementsreduced the number of people stuck on hold by about one-third.But by Thursday afternoon, visitors seeking to set up an accounton Healthcare.gov were still running into web pages asking themto wait.
KEEPING TRACK OF THE INTEREST
As a result, organizations at the grass-roots level havebegun finding ways to keep track of the uninsured who have notbeen able to get through.
"For folks who've had trouble enrolling, the most importantthing is that someone's there to answer questions and make anappointment for next week to go through the process," said AnneFilipic, president of Enroll America, a nonprofit group at theforefront of Obamacare's grass-roots outreach to the uninsured.
Gateway to Care, a small nonprofit healthcare organizationheadquartered in impoverished southeast Houston, has receivedscores of telephone calls from people wanting to learn abouttheir options under the law. Many of the callers live outsidethe group's county-wide service area.
"It's really unexpected. We thought we were going to have toreally beat the bushes to get people interested," said Gatewayto Care's executive director Ron Cookston, who has had 15 of his19 staff members trained as Obamacare application counselors.
One health center in Miami managed to enroll 68 people forsubsidized coverage through Healthcare.gov. The center's staffalso had to turn away 24 people who cannot obtain healthcoverage in Florida because its Republican-controlledlegislature has not agreed to join Obamacare's Medicaidexpansion for the poor.
"That really, really bothers me," Behrman said.
- Health Care Industry