Federal insurance website overwhelmed by traffic, glitches on first day

| Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, 10:18 a.m.

Obamacare stumbled over an important starting block on Tuesday as technical glitches and traffic tripped up the government's online shop for buying health insurance.

On the first day that uninsured Pennsylvanians could sign up for subsidized health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, frustrated shoppers were greeted with a message on the website, www.healthcare.gov, asking for their patience.

“We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we're working to make your experience here better,” the site said.

Public relations officials with the Pennsylvania Insurance Department in Harrisburg fielded calls from consumers, even though the state relinquished responsibility for the website to the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

“Some people were frustrated and believe we can fix the federal site. We cannot,” state insurance spokeswoman Rosanne Placey said. Placey said people complained about a “considerable wait time” to get through to a federal call center.

That situation played out in 36 states that, like Pennsylvania, opted to let the federal agency run the online marketplace, officials said.

In President Obama's home state of Illinois, dozens of people who came to a Champaign public health office to sign up for coverage found computer screens around the room flashing an error message: “System is unavailable.”

At a UPMC Health Plan kiosk in Ross Park Mall, sales representatives walked Tyler Krieter and other potential customers through the company's marketplace in lieu of the one at healthcare.gov.

“I've been trying the government site for days — twice last night and again this morning,” Krieter, 26, said. “I'd like to get enrolled right away, but my subsidy won't be available until the website works.”

Anne Palmerine, the health plan's senior director of customer engagement, said callers swamped UPMC's call centers at nearly double the usual volume.

In an afternoon conference call with reporters, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said healthcare.gov had received 2.8 million visitors, triple the traffic of any day since the site went live in June.

Tavenner would not say how many people were able to enroll through the website.

She blamed the outages on traffic and technical problems that technicians were fixing.

“With any new product launch, there are going to be glitches as things unfold,” she said. “Keep in mind that while this is the first day you can sign up, it's not the last.”

The Obama administration hopes to sign up 7 million people during the first year and eventually at least half of the nearly 50 million uninsured Americans through an expansion of Medicaid or government-subsidized plans. Enrollment for 2014 will remain open through March 31, but people must purchase a plan by Dec. 14 to have coverage on Jan. 1.

The region's largest health insurer, Highmark Health Services, experienced higher-than-normal call volumes from people trying to find out how to sign up, spokeswoman Kristin Ash said.

Neither Highmark nor UPMC Health Plan was able to enroll potential customers from their call centers or in retail stores.

In a Highmark Direct retail insurance store in North Fayette, Mike Nobitski sat alone in a newly remodeled, glass-enclosed room outfitted with foldaway self-service stations set up for Obamacare shoppers.

Highmark trained Nobitski to help customers sign up for a health plan. He clicked on healthcare.gov every few seconds to refresh the page, hoping it would work.

“We've been building up to this for months,” store manager Mike King said. “We've definitely had a lot of inquiries. I'm sure web traffic will die down; at least, I hope it does. We're ready to get started, to get people signed up.”

The opening of the exchanges occurred the same day as a partial shutdown of the federal government, which went into effect because Congress and the president couldn't agree on a spending bill, which Republicans wanted to use to take money away from the health insurance law. The shutdown will have no immediate effect on the insurance marketplaces that are the backbone of the law because they operate with money that isn't subject to annual budget wrangling in Washington.

Several nonprofit groups that support Obamacare welcomed people to the Hill House in Pittsburgh's Hill District to answer questions about the law and begin enrolling the uninsured. But website problems kept them from doing so, said Antoinette Kraus, project director for the Pennsylvania Health Access Network.

“There have been a few glitches today. And it was slow,” she said. “I think it shows that there is an overwhelming demand for coverage.”

The Associated Press contributed. Alex Nixon and Megan Harris are Trib Total Media staff writers.

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