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How to successfully register for health insurance on HealthCare.gov

Frustrated by trying to register on HealthCare.gov? You're hardly alone. Of the 9.47 million people who tried to register in the first week, only 271,00 were able to create an account, according to one analysis. That's about 1 in 35. Many people couldn't even create user names and passwords. For tips on how to get past the roadblocks, we talked with a Phoenix software tester named Ben Simo. When he got stuck trying to register a family member, Simo used his professional know-how to look beneath the hood and come up with some suggestions for creating a Healthcare.gov user account that actually works.

1. Follow instructions when creating a user name.

That's not as easy as it seems. For the user name, put in everything mentioned in the garbled instructions: at least seven characters that include at least one upper-case letter, one lower-case letter, one number, and one of the permitted symbols. Also follow the password instructions to the letter. (Simo says the instructions are needlessly complicated and logins will end up being less secure because users will be putting the info on Post-Its stuck to their computers, as indeed I have done with my own.)

2. Move on immediately from failed logins.

If you’re having trouble creating a user name and password, “don’t believe all the status and error messages that you see on the screen,” Simo said. “They may not always match reality.” That’s what Simo saw when he looked at the underlying Javascript on one of his failed attempts. If anything at all doesn’t go right, immediately try a different name, password, and/or security questions.

Health reform countdown: We are doing an article a day on the new health care law until Jan. 1, 2014, when it takes full effect. (Read the previous posts in the series.) To get health insurance advice tailored to your situation, use our Health Law Helper.

3. Check your inbox frequently.

If you are truly successful, you should receive an “account activation” e-mail within a few hours to verify that the email address you gave was legit. Answer it promptly, because if you don’t, Healthcare.gov will time you out. If the e-mail never comes, you’ll have to go back to square one.

4. Clear your cookies.

Your next hurdle after creating a functioning user name and password is to reach the identity verification section. If you log in to Healthcare.gov and get nothing but a blank page, what’s likely happening, Simo says, is that in your previous visits to Healthcare.gov, your browser got loaded up with lots of cookies, bits of data and code that are implanted for later retrieval and use by Healthcare.gov. The problem is that the cookie files are bigger than what the website can accept back (yes, a design error). Result: a blank page. Solution: either delete the Healthcare.gov cookies from your browser (typically found in the “privacy” settings in Preferences), or log back in from a browser you’ve never previously used to access Healthcare.gov. That advice rang especially true to me because that's how I finally got an identity verification screen: by switching from my usual Safari browser to another that I rarely use.

If all this is too much for you to absorb, follow our previous advice: Stay away from Healthcare.gov for at least another month if you can. Hopefully that will be long enough for its software vendors to clean up the mess they’ve made. The coverage available through the marketplaces won’t begin until Jan. 1, 2014, at the earliest, and you have until Dec. 15 to enroll if you need insurance that starts promptly.

By the way, Simo has plenty more to say about Healthcare.gov on his blog.  

Got a question for our health insurance expert? Ask it here. It helps if you include the state you live in.

— Nancy Metcalf

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