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Sebelius visit fails to reassure as health care website glitches persist

Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 11:48 p.m.
 

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had a front-row view of the problems plaguing the website that the government established to allow people to shop for health insurance under Obamacare.

Sebelius and Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney were at an enrollment and education event on Thursday at Heinz Field to promote Healthcare.gov, but people who showed up encountered problems in signing up for coverage on the website.

Unable to handle heavy online traffic and riddled with technical glitches, the website has been a source of criticism of the Obama administration and the new Affordable Care Act since its start on Oct. 1.

Sebelius, who is making similar trips to cities across the country to spread the word about the website, told the audience of about 100 people that Healthcare.gov was “open for business.”

“Believe me, we had some early glitches,” said Sebelius, who was introduced by Rooney, a backer of the law. “But it's getting better every day.”

At the back of the room, it was a different story. About 20 people armed with laptops and certified by the government to sign up people for coverage were meeting with uninsured people, answering questions and fruitlessly trying to access the website.

LaKesha Lowry, 41, came to the event to find out about her health insurance options. But the North Side resident said she was not able to access the site, even with the help of a certified application counselor.

“It said, ‘Try again later,' ” Lowry said.

Asked about the ongoing problems with the website and the fact that people at a government enrollment event couldn't sign up, Sebelius told reporters that she didn't know what problems were affecting service at Heinz Field. The government has made hardware and software upgrades to improve the site, she said, and it is working for many people.

“We're working to ensure it's easy to use,” Sebelius said, noting that more than 13 million people have visited the site, an “extraordinary” level of traffic.

Technicians, she said, are “working around the clock to add capacity.”

Since Healthcare.gov's shopping function went live 10 days ago — the start of a six-month open enrollment period — it has been overwhelmed with traffic. That's a fact that the law's supporters have said shows how much demand there is for new health insurance options. Critics have said the problems show the law should be delayed or scrapped.

In recent days, technical glitches with the site's design have prevented people from creating accounts and accessing the shopping function.

Ted Couperus, a Gibsonia resident who spoke to the Tribune-Review on Monday about his trouble with the website, was still experiencing problems on Thursday.

“I have tried logging in over a dozen times since Tuesday at all hours day and night with no success,” he wrote in an email. “I have continued trying to log into my account at Healthcare.gov, always with the same result. The system seems to accept my user name and password, but gives me a blank white screen.”

The website is being used in Pennsylvania and 35 other states that decided to let the federal government handle the task rather than do it themselves. States that set up their own online marketplaces seem to be faring better.

The state of New York announced on Tuesday that more than 40,000 of its residents have signed up.

HHS officials so far have declined to release enrollment numbers for the federal website, saying they plan to provide monthly updates. It was unclear how many people — if any — were able to enroll at Thursday's event.

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

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