Health care exchange falters online; some Nebraskans sign up by phone

John Jackson's face is reflected in a computer screen many Nebraskans saw this week
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October 3, 2013 - 5:34pm

Editor's note: If you want to try to sign up to the health care exchange by telephone, the number is 1-800-318-2596

The health care exchange, where people are supposed to be able to sign up for subsidized health insurance, went online this week. But in Nebraska, as elsewhere, it was slow going.

That was evident at the tree shaded Omaha home of John Jackson. Jackson is a self-employed business consultant. Jackson is married, with two kids, and currently pays a little over $400 a month for a high-deductible health insurance plan that excludes his wife’s back condition. So he is interested in whether he qualifies for better coverage or rates under the Affordable Care Act.

 When the Act’s health exchange went online at on Tuesday, Jackson invited a reporter to watch as he tried to get some information. After a few clicks, he read off what the computer screen was telling him:

“Choose your state. If you live in Nebraska you will use this website to apply for coverage, compare plans and enroll. Apply now. We have a lot of visitors on our site right now. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience.”

Time passed, and nothing happened. Jackson tried the live chat feature, trying to ask someone how long the wait would be. There was no response.

Then, after about 20 minutes, the main screen changed. “Alright,” Jackson exclaimed. “First, we have to create an account.”

Jackson set about creating a username and password, and answering security questions: First name of his oldest niece. Favorite cuisine. Sometimes, he had to be careful. Favorite pet? He keyed in a name, commenting “This one’s already deceased so it shouldn’t cause any jealousy among the current dogs.”

The screen said it was processing Jackson’s request. He waited perhaps  another five minutes, then read a new message: “Important, your account couldn’t be created at this time. The system is unavailable.”

And so it went, for untold numbers of Nebraskans trying to use the online system. As of Thursday afternoon, Andy Williams of Blue Cross Blue Shield, one of four companies offering policies on the federally-run exchange in Nebraska, said “As far as we can tell, no one in Nebraska has been able to get in and go all the way through the process to apply for health insurance through the marketplace.”

Williams said his counterparts in other states using the federally-run exchange were reporting at most a handful of successful signups. The three other companies doing business on the Nebraska exchange either didn’t return calls for information, or had none to offer. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services wasn’t releasing enrollment figures, but did say 7 million Americans visited the website in the first two days.

Some Nebraskans were finding a way around the online logjam. Roger Furrer, Executive Director of Community Action of Nebraska, which hired so-called “navigators” to help people find their way through the system, said they were using a toll free number – 1-800-318-2596 to help people sign up. Community Action also has offices around the state where people can get help signing up.

Regarding the online glitches, Williams said the government originally told insurers they could begin testing the computer system July 1. That was already a big concern for information technology professionals, Williams said. But the actual testing didn’t begin until two weeks ago. “That’s extremely tight,” he said. Nobody was very confident going in.”

Despite the problems, Chris McPike, an agent and broker with Compro Insurance in Lincoln, said she is advising people she’s helping to keep their cool.

“We’re telling our clients that October 1 was the beginning of the process for enrolling people in new insurance plans that will become effective in 2014,” McPike said. “We’re asking them to be patient -- telling them that we need to allow the website to figure out how to resolve some of the issues that people are having, and expecting that the dust will settle in the early part of October so that we will be able to proceed in a manner that allows people to complete their transaction.”

People have until Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage that starts January 1, and until March 31 to sign up for coverage that can start as late as May 1 of next year.




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