Okay. So it's disappointing that HealthCare.gov isn't working as we had hoped. Very disappointing.
But it's important to keep your eyes on the prize. Even though the website is badly in need of some CPR, the fact is that you now have many more health insurance options than you did before October 1 because of the Affordable Care Act. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this week shows that 67 percent of Americans feel that the site's problems are either a "short-term technical issue" or that it's too early to tell.
My big worry: Too many people -- whether they're seeking first-time coverage or need to replace a policy that's being discontinued under the new law -- have been completely thrown off by the negative news. The fact is that more than 700,000 Americans have managed to apply for a new health insurance plan. How did these people get through? With tenacity, consumer smarts, and some of the steps highlighted below.
Although I believe going without health insurance is reckless, realistically speaking you still have some time until the March 31, 2014, deadline to obtain coverage and avoid having $95 or 1 percent of your income -- whichever is greater -- withheld from your tax refund in 2015 (though you may qualify for an exemption). If you're not in a big rush -- say, you have some coverage now and are hoping to improve the cost and quality with a so-called Obamacare-compliant plan -- just keeping tabs on the site's progress for the next month or so is a reasonable approach. The Obama administration says its "tech surge" should have the site in good shape by Thanksgiving -- and, if we're talking turkey, that would be an achievement.
Here's a step-by-step guide for what you should do now:
1. If you live in New York or California, or more than a dozen other states, your new online health care portal is probably good to go.
You may be surprised to hear this, if you're like the woman with whom I chatted at the gym this week. The fact is, in the flurry of negative press accounts, few have noted that the following 16 states (plus D.C.) have their own independent exchanges which can provide you with everything you need to register for an account, complete an online application, compare your options, and then enroll in a plan. Now, a few of these new sites have had some problems, notably Oregon. But big states such as New York and California -- with a combined population of 58 million Americans -- are A-OK.
California: Covered California
Colorado: Connect for Health Colorado
Connecticut: Access Health CT
District of Columbia: DC Health Link
Hawaii: Hawaii Health Connector
Idaho: Your Health Idaho
Maryland: Maryland Health Connection
Massachusetts: Massachusetts Health Connector
Nevada: Nevada Health Link Website
New Mexico: New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange
New York: New York Health Benefit Exchange
Oregon: Cover Oregon
Rhode Island: HealthSource RI
Vermont: Vermont Health Connect
Washington: Washington Health Plan Finder
2. If your state doesn't have its own independent exchange, boost your chances of success on HealthCare.gov by following a few tips.
- Try visiting HealthCare.gov during off-peak hours. Phone representatives consistently say your best bet online is late at night or very early in the morning—when fewer users will be trying to apply.
- Gather this paperwork before you call: Social Security numbers and birth dates for you and any family members applying for coverage; pay stubs or W-2 forms for working members of the household; policy numbers for any current health insurance plans; and information about any job-related health insurance for which you're currently eligible.
- Do some computer housekeeping before you try to log on. You can boost your likelihood of getting through by clearing the cookies from your browser and emptying the cache. Also, make sure that you don't have a pop-up blocker activated that could prevent the site from sending you the list of plans. Check out this useful piece from Consumer Reports for more technical tips.
3. Apply by phone at 1-800-318-2596.If you don't have the patience to keep trying HealthCare.gov (I don't blame you), try this novel approach: the telephone. Anyone over 40 may remember making a call at some point in their life to order a pizza or buy a plane ticket. It'll only take about 25 minutes (if you're single) to an hour (if you have a family) on the phone—a worthwhile investment of time to increase your chances of having coverage by January 1. Here are the steps to follow:
- Download the appropriate application form so that you can follow along with the phone representative. Single adults have a simplified 5-page questionnaire (here are some instructions for filling it out); families will need the 12-pager (more instructions here).
- Call the 800-number and say the name of your state when prompted, followed by the word "representative" at the next prompt.
- My office called more than two dozen times over the past few days and each time a phone representative picked up in less than a minute, ready to get started on the application. (How's that for service?)
- The call center rep will fill out the application according to your answers and submit it manually.
- Getting the list of plans for which you're eligible could take as little as two weeks or as long as eight weeks. Make sure to give your email address to the rep so that you can receive your results by email. Either way, you'll also get that information by snail mail. (We found that some reps didn't seem to be aware you could get your notification by email, so remind them that President Obama said so on October 21!)
- Once you get your list of plan offerings, compare health care provider ratings from Consumer Reports, go to the providers' sites directly (you'll get that information in your application results), and then call 1-800-318-2596 again to discuss your options and get enrolled.
4. Mail your application to the Health Insurance Marketplace.
You can skip the over-the-phone route. Just download the application as above, print it, complete it yourself, and mail it in. (You can also call 1-800-318-2596 and ask for the form to be mailed to you). Keep in mind, however, that this will cost you postage and a few extra days for the form to reach the processing center. That address is Health Insurance Marketplace, Dept. of Health and Human Services, 465 Industrial Blvd., London, KY 40750-0001.
5. Apply in person.
Search with your ZIP code at localhelp.healthcare.gov to find a trained "Application Assister" in your state to help you apply and enroll for free. These Application Assisters (known as Navigators, In-Person Assisters, Certified Application Counselors, or licensed agents and brokers) must meet federal and state certification requirements, so ask for hard evidence that your Application Assister has received training before you sit down with them. There may be people trying to take advantage of this newly regulated area of health care reform, so read this tip sheet to learn how to protect yourself from scammers.
6. Fuggedaboutit. For now.
If you feel like you just can't deal at this point, no problem: You can wait for a few weeks until the site is supposed to be running more reliably. Meanwhile, check out healthlawhelper.org, a great tool from Consumer Reports that serves as a precursor to using HealthCare.gov.
So there it is. I'm not saying this is as fun as lining up at the crack of dawn to get the latest iPhone. However, with these less-than-ideal but workable solutions you can get a jump on getting coverage.
© 2013 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved
Beth Kobliner is a personal finance commentator and journalist, the author of the New York Times bestseller Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties, and a member of the President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability. Visit her at bethkobliner.com, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.