Washington – One thing was predicted: Obamacare insurance exchanges would fall prey to massive computer failures on Tuesday, their opening day.
But this was not predicted: An unforeseen number of Americans tried to use the websites, sometimes causing or exacerbating the technical disasters at some exchanges.
New York alone had more than 2 million hits in the first hours of operations, causing the system to crash.
“The way to interpret this is that people are interested to learn about what’s available in the Affordable Care Act,” said Jennifer Tolbert, director of State Health Reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Many states, including Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland and California — all states that developed their own exchanges — reported problems.
Maryland, for example, delayed the inauguration of its exchange for four hours and still had glitches.
“There seems to be problems with many websites, but they are getting resolved along the way,” Tolbert said.
Faulty computer systems wreaked greater havoc in states that depended on the federal government’s website Healthcare.gov, with people not being able to sign on or determine whether they are eligible for subsidies to purchase insurance or the amount of subsidies they would receive.
Many using the federal exchange were greeted with error messages. Others were advised to wait: “We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we’re working to make your experience here better. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience!”
Navigators — people who were trained to help the uninsured sign up for coverage in the exchanges — were frustrated when they could not log in and do so.
But many Americans were able to shop around on an exchange website and compare plans, Tolbert said, even if they might not have been able to buy insurance or determine subsidy eligibility.
There were some reports of incorrect information about coverage, deductibles and copays on some exchanges.
Yet there were fewer troubles with Connecticut’s exchange, called Access Health CT. It reported signing up 167 people with health insurance by 4:00 p.m. That was called “robust activity” by the agency, but it’s a fraction of the 80,000 or so uninsured the state wants covered under Obamacare.
But in many ways Tuesday’s launch is a bit of a dress rehearsal, aimed at allowing the uninsured and underinsured to begin shopping for coverage. Since coverage won’t begin until Jan. 1 at the earliest, most people are expected to purchase their policies at the end of November or early December.
“If we’re still having problems by then, it’s a real problem,” Tolbert said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius compared the rollout with upgrades on iPads and iPhones.
“We’re building a complicated piece of technology,” Sebelius said. “And hopefully you’ll give us the same slack you give Apple.”
In a Rose Garden address Tuesday, President Obama hailed the opening of state insurance exchanges, but said, “like every new law, every new product rollout, there are going to be some glitches in the sign-up process along the way that we will fix.”
He said that in its first hours, “the site has been running more slowly than it normally will.”
The president attributed the problems to the fact that more than 1 million people had visited the site before 7 a.m. Tuesday, which he said was five times more users than had ever visited Medicare.gov.
But House Republican opponents, who have tried for more than 40 times to repeal or scale back the Affordable Care Act, seized on problems at the exchanges.
Reps. Fred Upton and David Camp of Michigan and John Klein of Minnesota issued a release warning that the IT problems would result in the compromising of personal information people enter into exchange websites.
“It does not instill confidence that the administration was scheduled to certify the security of the health IT systems just hours before millions of Americans are expected to upload their personal information,” the House Republicans said. “The administration was also months behind in doling out grants to navigator groups for outreach and enrollment assistance, resulting in a reduction in training time by more than half and creating additional privacy concerns.”