Millions of people across the country and in New Jersey yesterday tried to shop for health insurance on the new online exchanges but the process was hampered by persistent technical glitches on the federal government’s website.
Many who tried to log on encountered error messages, coding problems and even a request for patience.
Most of the issues stemmed from overwhelming demand, said Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, though she acknowledged that the government was forced to contend with problems, such as faulty drop-down menus, that kept people from creating an account.
More than 2.8 million people nationwide accessed healthcare.gov on the first day of enrollment, but Tavenner refused to say how many were actually able to enroll or when the problems that plagued the site would be fixed.
Officials in the Obama Administration for weeks have been warning that glitches should be expected, and did not seem too concerned that the rollout of the online insurance exchange, a cornerstone of the landmark health care law, was marred on opening day.
Speaking yesterday at a rally in East Orange to promote the new law, Jaime Torres, a regional director with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, urged people to have patience.
“Just to emphasize, open enrollment is six months,” Torres said in an interview. “We have a long stretch so there is plenty of time for people who have a little difficulty today to log on tomorrow.”
That was the message from New Jersey health care advocates, insurance brokers and navigators.
“The system is down, just relax,” David Glasker, a Westfield insurance broker, said he was telling potential clients.
“It’s an easy thing. We have plenty of time to get insured.”
Open enrollment on the health insurance exchange lasts through March 31. Coverage begins on Jan. 1 for anyone who signs up by Dec. 15.
Marion Lynch, a spokeswoman for the Foodbank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, which received $137,000 from the federal navigator program to help people enroll, said her organization received several dozen calls yesterday from people looking for help.
All she could do, she said, was tell them the website was down, but she was confident the callers would return.
“Today is only day one,” Lynch said. “I think when people can get on the website and get more information everything will be fine.”
The lack of information about what plans will cost and what they will offer was a concern for many who had been anxious to sign up and explore their options, some said.
Iisha Jacob, 31, of Newark, said she wants to buy coverage through an exchange, but isn’t sure she will be able to afford it even with the subsidies that are offered by the federal government to help people pay their premiums.
Her job as an on-call aide working with disabled people is part-time and her hours are unpredictable, she said. After her rent, groceries and other bills, she said she doesn’t know how much money she will have left to spend on premiums.
Pamela Clark, chief executive and president of the Newark Community Health Centers, which has received a federal grant to help people apply for coverage, said the “lack of information” has been her group’s biggest challenge.
“People only hear it is going to be expensive,” she said.
New Jersey is relying on the federal exchange because Gov. Chris Christie chose to have the federal government manage the online marketplace. States that chose to run their own health insurance exchange did not necessarily fare better. New York’s site was overwhelmed through most of the morning.
In Maryland, which is running its own online marketplace, officials delayed opening of the website until noon and reported problems with their call center. Similar problems prevented consumers from getting information on health plans in Kentucky. Other states, including Oregon and Colorado, have already delayed some enrollment systems.
The Obama administration hopes to sign up 7 million people during the first year and aims to eventually sign up at least half of the nearly 50 million uninsured Americans through an expansion of Medicaid or government-subsidized plans.
But if people become frustrated with the malfunctions in the computer-based enrollment process and turn away from the program, the prospects for Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement could dim, said one expert.
“You’ve got to launch this thing right the first time,” said Robert Laszewski, a consultant who worked 20 years in the insurance industry. “If you don’t, financially you will never recover.”