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Agency reports 8.6M health care site visitors as Web issues are sorted

Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Consumers are slowly beginning to enroll in health insurance plans through Obamacare, four days after the opening of a federally run website was hampered by technical problems and overwhelmed by a large number of users.

Several insurers told the Tribune-Review that they have gained customers through Healthcare.gov, but declined to say how many.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is running the website in Pennsylvania and 35 other states, said it is improving the capacity of the website to handle traffic and announced late Friday that it plans a partial shutdown over the weekend and expects “significant improvements” on Monday.

The agency said 8.6 million people have visited the website since it opened for shopping on Tuesday and two-thirds accessed the marketplace to begin their application and shop for plans. It didn't say how many were successfully enrolled for coverage.

Access remained slow and a reporter's attempts to start an account and begin shopping were thwarted by error messages related to setting up security questions and answers. Many reports from around the country in recent days have mentioned a problem with the security questions.

HHS spokesman Fabien Levy declined to answer questions related to the site's performance or whether the issues were more significant than just the high volume of traffic. He wouldn't say whether tests were done ahead of time to determine how the site would withstand millions of consumers attempting to log in.

But in a written response, Levy said the department's experts are “working around the clock and have been able to expand system capacity somewhat, cutting by one-third the volume of people waiting to apply.” He said the department is adding more technicians to find and fix problems.

Five outside technology experts interviewed by Reuters say they believe flaws in system architecture, not traffic alone, contributed to the problems. For instance, when a user tries to set up an account on Healthcare.gov, the computer is prompted to load an unusually large amount of files and software, overwhelming the browser, experts said.

If they are right, then just bringing more servers online will not fix the problems.

“We know that there have been some challenges with the federal marketplace in our markets,” said Kristin Ash, a spokeswoman for Highmark Health Services. But, she said, “we have received enrollments from the federal marketplace and through direct sales to individuals.”

Highmark, the largest health insurer in the state, is one of three companies selling health plans through the website in Western Pennsylvania, which is where uninsured people can shop for insurance under the Affordable Care Act and receive federal tax credits, depending on their incomes.

UPMC Health Plan and HealthAmerica, a subsidiary of Aetna Inc., are selling plans here.

“Our activity is high (thousands of visitors to the website and hundreds of calls to our sales line),” UPMC Health Plan spokeswoman Gina Pferdehirt said in a written statement. “But I think the sales are not reflective due to sporadic connection issues with the government website.”

Aetna spokeswoman Susan Millerick said the company has seen activity from the 17 states where it is selling coverage through Healthcare.gov, but she said “it's too premature to share numbers at this time.”

People who enroll in a plan by Dec. 15 will have coverage starting Jan. 1. But the enrollment process continues until March 31.

While some uninsured people may be having trouble shopping for health plans that will be required of most working Americans who don't receive coverage from an employer, people trained to aide shoppers — known as navigators — were not in place in Western Pennsylvania.

Two organizations in the region received federal funding to hire and train navigators, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and Mental Health America of Westmoreland County.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit has hired one full-time navigator, who will start next week, spokeswoman Sarah McCluan said. Two part-time positions have yet to be filled, she said.

Mental Health America hired a navigator on Thursday, but that person must complete 20 hours of training, Executive Director Laurie Barnett Levine said.

Website glitches were not isolated to Healthcare.gov. States running their own online marketplaces experienced overwhelming traffic earlier this week.

In New York, more than 44,000 people visited and shopped on the state's website this week, Donna Frescatore, the site's executive director, said in a written statement. While the home­page continued to carry a warning that customers were experiencing log-in difficulties, Frescatore said the state was “continuing to work to improve the site's access and navigation to handle the heavy traffic we have seen. ... Additional servers were added on Tuesday and Wednesday to enhance capacity, and software upgrades to enhance performance have been completed.”

The government and industry officials continued to ask for patience from customers on Friday, including America's Health Insurance Plans, a Washington, D.C., association representing insurance companies.

“This is a marathon and not a sprint,” the association's CEO Karen Ignagni said in a statement. “We are hearing from plans across the country that they are receiving enrollments from the federal exchange, and we anticipate enrollments will continue to increase in the days and weeks ahead.”

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com. Reuters contributed to this report.

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