By David Morgan and Lewis Krauskopf
Oct 14 (Reuters) - The U.S. administration has made headwayagainst an online traffic bottleneck that jammed enrollment forPresident Barack Obama's healthcare reform, but new technicalproblems greeted users on Monday showing how difficult it willbe to get consumers registered in time for coverage to startJan. 1.
Three weeks since the launch of new health insurance plansunder Obamacare, users were able to create accounts forthemselves and begin the enrollment process through theHealthcare.gov insurance marketplace for consumers in 36 states,according to people aiding the sign-up effort.
But further into the process, error messages and otherdifficulties were apparent, leading to fresh frustrations forhealth insurers and nonprofit groups who want to help millionsof uninsured Americans sign up for benefits.
"We have seen progress every day," said Nasim Zahran ofMiami's Borinquen Medical Health Care Centers, where hundreds ofpeople are waiting to enroll in coverage.
"Today was the first day that we got all the way to the lastscreen. But then an error screen popped up saying the site wouldbe down for 72 hours," Zahran said.
Healthcare.gov saw 14.6 million unique visits in its first10 days, a larger-than-expected public response that raisedhopes Obamacare would meet with strong enough demand in itsfirst year.
But the site's limited ability to enroll consumers isbecoming an increasing focus of Obamacare's Republican foes, whosay the government wasn't ready to implement the law and shouldhave delayed it.
Experts say the administration has until mid-November toiron out the problems or risk jeopardizing its goal of signingup 7 million people in the first year of the Obamacaremarketplaces. The number includes 2.7 million healthy youngadults whose participation will help offset the higher cost ofinsuring sicker and older beneficiaries.
At town hall meetings originally intended to drive people toenroll, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas is tellingconsumers not to rush to purchase health coverage throughHealthcare.gov, given that the enrollment period runs throughMarch 31.
"What we are encouraging our folks in Kansas to do is giveit a few weeks and let the bugs work their way out of thesystem," said Mary Beth Chambers, spokeswoman for the healthinsurer.
Virginia-based insurer Optima Health reported receivingtheir first applications for insurance filed throughHealthcare.gov in the last few days.
"We, ourselves, have been testing and we're seeing the samedifficulties that folks have been telling us on the phone," saidspokesman Bobby Pearson.
Cigna said it has been able to sign up people throughthe federal exchange, without providing further details.
Other major insurers that have helped test the federalsystem for months, say the problems were long in the making.
"We were pretty nervous as we got further along. We helpedthem build blueprints on how to put the system together, and asthey started missing deadlines, we were pretty convinced that itwas going to be a difficult launch," Aetna Chief Executive MarkBertolini said in an interview with cable business channel CNBC.
FOLLOWING THE STATES
The administration faces growing criticism for designingHealthcare.gov with a series of gates that require visitors toset up accounts and verify their identities before gettingactual information on available insurance plans and their owneligibility for federal subsidies.
"I really don't think that anybody knows how difficult it'sgoing to be to get Healthcare.gov fully functioning," said JonKingsdale, a widely respected expert on market exchanges, whooversaw the first such operation in Massachusetts.
"With users stuck in the first couple of gates, they haven'treally been able to test downstream gates," he added. "There areliterally hundreds of insurers. Each of them has to get thisright in their interchange of information with the exchange forthe exchange enrollment to become effective. We're not eventhere yet."
Over the weekend, Healthcare.gov alerted consumers to a newtool that makes it easier to view sample insurance premiums intheir area and estimate their subsidy without creating accounts.
"This is perhaps a way to distract visitors or hold themover while (the administration) continues to fortify the webdesign on the back end," said Austin Bordelon, an analyst forLeavitt Partners, a Utah-based consulting group that is trackingthe healthcare exchanges.
The change is more in line with the approach of states likeConnecticut and California that successfully launched their ownhealthcare exchanges.
"States have figured out how to do it. It's a harder liftfor the federal government with the volume it has, but it's notdifferent in kind," said Joel Ario, who oversaw the early plansfor the state exchanges at the U.S. Department of Health andHuman Services (HHS) until his departure in 2011.
"Maybe they need to hire the contractors from the statesthat have figured this out," he said in a discussion posted tothe journal Health Affairs' blog.
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