A second consecutive day of technical problems in Florida on Wednesday locked out consumers attempting to log on to the online health insurance exchanges that are key to the healthcare reform law known as the Affordable Care Act.
Wednesday was the second day of a six-month open enrollment period, during which eligible low- and middle-income consumers can sign up for subsidized health insurance through the federally-run website, healthcare.gov.
But many were once again unable to get past the first step: creating an account necessary to verify eligibility for subsidies, shop for health plans and enroll for coverage.
The site had been jammed up since Tuesday’s opening day and Wednesday was more of the same. Consumers at the Jessie Trice Community Health Center in Brownsville, where many of the neighborhood’s uninsured seek medical services, were still having no luck registering on the site.
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Paul Salazar, a federally-certified application counselor, was stationed with a laptop at the Trice center, hoping to help people learn more about the health reform law and apply for coverage through the website.
He ran into the same delays that millions encountered on the first day.
“At first, it was showing, ‘Page not found,’,’’ he said, “and now it’s just saying there are too many people on the site and try again later.’’
Officials with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency administering online exchanges in 34 states that elected not to create their own, said the technical problems are due to an overwhelming number of people trying to access the website at once.
Brian Cook, media relations director for CMS, issued a statement Wednesday saying that some consumers had successfully enrolled through HealthCare.gov and the 17 state-based exchanges on Tuesday, but he did not say how many.
“Volume at HealthCare.gov continues to be high, with 4.7 million unique visits in the first 24 hours, our call center receiving more than 190,000 calls and more than 104,000 web chats requested,’’ Cook said. “We expect to see similar volume as yesterday, and while this overwhelming interest is continuing to cause wait times, there will be continuing improvements in the coming hours and days.’’
Consumers appear willing to wait for the exchange to run smoothly.
At Brownsville’s Trice center, Salazar said he and his counselor colleagues had taken contact information from about five prospective health insurance buyers Wednesday — a slower pace than dozens who tried to enroll there on Tuesday.
Herman Edwards, development manager for the health center, said consumers interested in signing up for health plans through the exchange were being told to come back
“Hopefully,’’ he said, “everything will be smoothed out by next week, at the latest.’’
At the Miami Beach offices of Benefits Design Resources, William Warren is one of hundreds of Florida insurance agents who took the online federal training certification course to sell subsidized health plans on the exchange.
Insurance agents also sell plans off the exchange, but consumers who buy those plans cannot receive subsidies that help pay premiums and out-of-pocket costs such as copays.
Unable to get past a message on healthcare.gov that read “We have a lot of visitors on the site right now,’’ Warren said he was not concerned.
The enrollment period runs through March 31, though consumers must sign up by Dec. 15 for coverage to begin Jan. 1
“I estimate in another two to three weeks, it will be a lot easier,’’ Warren said.
For now, Warren said, he is reassuring callers and telling them, “It’s not like we need to do this today.’’
Plus, he said, he’s advising consumers not to rush into a purchase since plans can vary in prices and benefits.
“I don’t want to be the first one out there trying this,’’ he said. “It’s like buying a new car fresh off the assembly line: You want other people trying it before you. Give it a couple of weeks to work itself out.’’
On Tuesday, federal officials from the White House to CMS attributed the problems to a flood of users.
During a Tuesday press conference to address the government shutdown triggered by a political standoff over the health reform law, or Obamacare, President Obama said more than one million people had accessed the site before 7 a.m.
About three hours later, CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner said the number had gone higher: “More than 2.8 million people have visited healthcare.gov since midnight.’’
Tavenner gave no explanation for the website’s technical problems other than citing an overwhelming number of visitors in a short time. And though, during a conference call with reporters, she insisted that the glitches had been fixed, healthcare.gov continued to exhibit the same problems several hours later.
Tavenner and other federal officials emphasized that initial glitches are to be expected with an unprecedented rollout of such large technological magnitude, and they noted that a majority of Americans — about 85 percent — do not need to shop for plans on the online exchanges because they already receive some form of health insurance, either through an employer-provided plan or a government program such as Medicare and Medicaid.
Federal officials also noted that the enrollment period runs through March 31, though consumers must sign up by Dec. 15 for coverage to begin Jan. 1. And they pointed consumers to other resources: as a toll-free number with live operators offering assistance in 150 languages, a live chat function on the online exchange and a network of in-person assistors to help people through the process.
Counselors across South Florida met with interested consumers at locations ranging from a nursery in Homestead that employs immigrant workers to a realty office in Doral.
The lobby of Community Health of South Florida’s Doris Ison Center was swamped early Tuesday with about 100 people wanting to learn about the insurance marketplace, according to Talesha Taft, a CHI employee who’s also a Certified Application Counselor qualified to help people enroll for subsidized health plans.
“We tried to create some accounts this morning but the system went down,’’ Taft said Tuesday. “We just answered people’s questions and took their names and phone numbers.’’
CHI is a federally qualified health center, which acts as a safety net healthcare provider funded with federal Medicaid dollars to care for the uninsured poor.
Taft said the most common question among consumers was: “How much will it cost?’’
By late afternoon, five CHI application counselors had about 100 follow-up calls to make between them, and stories of many more who don’t qualify for government subsidies to buy a marketplace plan.
Auporo Celis of Homestead, unemployed and in her 50s, with no income and a crippling spinal disease, learned her income means she won’t qualify for Obamacare or Medicaid, and should file for a waiver to be exempt from the fine for not having healthcare.
Some information was made available late Tuesday. Prices for health plans in states with federally-run exchanges were posted to healthcare.gov late Tuesday afternoon, giving consumers a glimpse at the many plans and prices offered by insurers. But the posting did not include important plan details such as provider networks, deductibles and copays.