President Barack Obama said the launch of Obamacare's health insurance exchanges would be rocky. He was right.
During the first few hours of a six-month enrollment period for health coverage via the online marketplaces, both state-run health insurance exchanges and HealthCare.gov, which is the portal for residents of more than 30 states, were plagued by crashes, long load times and error messages. The exchanges, also called marketplaces, are intended for people who don't get health benefits at work or are uninsured.
By noon -- about four hours after the official launch time and about 12 hours after HealthCare.gov appeared to go live -- visitors to the website were greeted by messages such as "Health Insurance Marketplaces: Please Wait." They were unable to create an account to begin comparing health insurance plans on price and benefits or to learn whether they qualify for financial assistance. At times, the registration process began but halted. The wait time was more than 22 minutes when The Huffington Post called the federal call center.
In spite of the problems, small strides toward enrollment into health coverage began anyway. Covered California announced its first sign-up via Twitter before noon ET. About an hour before, Access Health CT in Connecticut announced that a family of three had used the exchange to obtain health coverage, and 22 people had signed up before noon. Kentucky's Kynect processed more than 1,000 applications between midnight and 9:30 a.m., spokeswoman Gwenda Bond said in an email.
Spot checks by The Huffington Post uncovered various problems with the health insurance exchange websites operated by 16 states and the District of Columbia. Minnesota held back on opening MNSure for enrollment until the afternoon, as did the Maryland Health Connection. Access Health CT, Kynect and Vermont Health Connect were live but showed problems with logging in, slow load times and crashes, for example. At press time, Your Health Idaho, Hawaii Health Connection and others didn't appear to be permitting health insurance shopping and the Washington Healthplanfinder in Washington state wouldn't load.
Connect for Health Colorado made comparing health plans possible but the state previously announced that online enrollment wouldn't be available for at least a few weeks. Cover Oregon also isn't taking applications online at first, the state disclosed in August.
High levels of public interest seem to be part of the reason for the online difficulties. HealthCare.gov has received more than 1 million visitors so far on Tuesday, White House Deputy Communications Advisor David Simas wrote on Twitter. New York State of Health had more than 2 million visitors in just two hours, according to a message that appeared on the website.
The Obama administration has been seeking to tamp down expectations for the beginning of the exchanges for months. The president tried to do so himself in remarks during an April White House briefing and a speech to promote Obamacare that he delivered last week.
In a speech at the White House on Tuesday, Obama acknowledged the fitful start to the the debut of the exchanges and attributed it to a greater level of interest than this administration anticipated. "This demand exceeds anything we expected," Obama said. "That gives you a sense of how important this is to millions of people around the country."
Obama vowed that the problems with Healthcare.gov would be swiftly corrected and likened the launch of the health insurance exchanges to the introduction of new Apple products that are imperfect at first, repeating a metaphor used by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Monday.
The White House also has been emphasizing that the enrollment period lasts until March 31, 2014, the final day Americans have to comply with the law's individual mandate that most legal U.S. residents obtain health coverage. Consumers also have until Dec. 15 to choose a health insurance plan that takes effect on Jan. 1.
These issues are predictable and won't have a lasting effect on Obamacare's aim to enroll millions of people into health benefits by next year, said Jon Kingsdale, a director at Wakely Consulting in Boston who oversaw the implementation of the Massachusetts health care reform program. The Massachusetts law was a model for the Affordable Care Act.
"I expect lots of 'glitches' today," Kingsdale said in an email to the Huffington Post. "I expect many of the glitches will get corrected in the next few days or weeks. Their relevance is to the two campaigns going on—the political one about the future of the A.C.A., and the marketing one to enroll the uninsured," he said. While political opponents of the will seize on the failures of the first day, health insurance customers still have plenty of time to shop.
If the glitches persist, though, that calculation changes, Kingsdale said. "The exchanges had better be ready next month, when the volume of enrollment is expected to grow."
Jason Cherkis contributed reporting