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ND insurance visitors see site down message

James Macpherson, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- An online marketplace created under the federal health care overhaul rolled out to a rocky start Tuesday as North Dakotans and others nationwide were greeted with a message telling them the site was down.

The marketplaces opened for a six-month enrollment period as part of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. North Dakota and 35 other states are allowing the federal government to run the insurance marketplaces, where people can compare coverage and prices.

North Dakota has three insurers — Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, Medica and Sanford — that are offering coverage through the marketplaces though details of those plans could not be accessed Tuesday morning. The federal healthcare.gov site warned that it had many visitors, and was sometimes sending users to an online application and sometimes asking them to try again later.

North Dakota Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm said he and his staff were monitoring the federal website Tuesday morning but were unable to access it.

"With anything of this nature you expect glitches and bumps along the way," Hamm said. "But it's very disappointing that on the first day North Dakotans can't use it."

The glitch in the online signup was frustrating to so-called navigators, whose job is to find uninsured residents and inform them of their options under the new law, said Neil Scharpe, who is heading the navigator program in North Dakota.

"We don't have paper applications yet so we have to rely on the website that can't be accessed," Scharpe said. "People kind of expect us to know what we're doing."

Scharpe said one navigator reported that her nephew was able to access the site later Tuesday and found it similar to filling out an electronic tax return.

"He got on and went through the whole process and said it was as easy as using Turbo Tax," Scharpe said.

Navigators must complete 20 hours of online training offered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to be certified. Scharpe said eight of the state's estimated 17 navigators have completed the training and were working throughout the state on Tuesday.

About $1 million in federal money is being spent on health care outreach in North Dakota, where an estimated 74,700 people are uninsured. Along with the navigators, federal dollars also are funding advertising, mailings and other outreach efforts.

North Dakota, like many GOP states, is not contributing monetarily to the marketing campaigning. Maggie Anderson, director of North Dakota's Department of Human Services, said her agency will help get the word out on the new law by working with other agencies and organizations.

Department of Human Services spokeswoman Heather Steffl said the agency had not received any calls about the federal marketplace by late Tuesday morning. Hamm, North Dakota's insurance commissioner, said his agency had received just one inquiry.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, which is the state's dominant insurer and one of three offering policies through the marketplaces, had received "a moderate" amount of questions about new plan options Tuesday, Blues spokeswoman Andrea Dinneen said.

Dinneen said Blues was advising callers to delay dealing with the marketplaces until the glitches were fixed. Insurance coverage will start Jan. 1 for those who sign up by Dec. 15. The initial enrollment period will continue through March 31.

"There is plenty of time for individuals and families to make decisions for their health insurance coverage," Dinneen said.


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