Technical issues continue to plague health care website

4.7M visits to site first two days.

For the second consecutive day, Ohioans hoping to enroll in the nation’s new online health insurance marketplace today were met with major technical glitches attributed to an unexpectedly high volume of visitors to the website.

The online marketplaces offer one-stop shopping to small businesses and nearly 1.5 million uninsured Ohioans, who will be able to choose from 200 different health plans offered by 12 private insurers and find out if they qualify for federal tax subsidies to offset premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this afternoon said the website has had more than 4.7 million visits, fielded more than 190,000 telephone calls and hosted more than 104,000 web chats.

“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,” said HHS spokesman Fabien Levy.

The government’s main online portal is handling enrollment for Ohio and in the 35 mostly Republican states that deferred to the federal government to set up and run their marketplaces, while the remainder states chose to build their own marketplaces.

Marketplace online traffic Tuesday was more than seven times the number of visitors to at any one time, officials said.

But visitors today continue to have trouble creating personal accounts to log onto, and those who have managed to log on met have been with long delays, error messages and a largely unresponsive website.

“As with any new product launch there are going to be glitches as things unfold,’’ said Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a division of the health and human services department.

The first-day computer malfunctions come as President Barack Obama’s signature legislation is facing both high expectations from supporters who see this as a way to provide coverage to uninsured Americans and heavy criticism from GOP and Tea Party congressional leaders who say the law is defective and will hurt businesses.

The three-year long battle over the biggest expansion in coverage in nearly five decades culminated in a partial shutdown of the federal government that also began Tuesday.

Obama summoned congressional leaders to the White House today that indicated little sign of a breakthrough to get hundreds of thousands of people back to work. Some on Capitol Hill ominously suggested the impasse might last for weeks, but a few Republicans seemed ready to blink. House Speaker John Boehner’s office said the Ohio Republican would attend the White House meeting this afternoon, suggesting the president is ready to start negotiating on GOP demands to extract changes to the new health care law in exchange for funding the government.

The federal government’s shutdown has no immediate effect on the insurance marketplaces that are the backbone of the law, because they operate with money that isn’t subject to the annual budget wrangling in Washington.

Major online rush

Tavenner compared the glitches to similar hiccups that emerged during the 2006 launch of the Medicare prescription drug program, and pointed out that people still have plenty of time to enroll: “Keep in mind that while this is the first day you can sign up, it is certainly not the last.”

The initial enrollment period for the marketplaces will last through March 31, with coverage beginning Jan. 1 for those who enroll by Dec. 15. The marketplaces offer subsidized health insurance coverage to small businesses with less than 50 employees and individuals with low-to-moderate incomes who do not get coverage from their employer or another source, such as Medicaid or Medicare.

In the first year, more than 160,000 Ohioans are expected to sign up for health insurance coverage through the marketplace, established by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Nationwide, about 7 million Americans are expected to sign up for coverage through their states’ marketplaces for insurance coverage next year.

Under the law, health insurance companies can no longer deny coverage to someone with a pre-existing medical condition and cannot impose lifetime caps on coverage. They also must cover a list of essential services, ranging from mental health treatment to maternity care.

Tavenner could not say exactly how many people had successfully enrolled in the marketplaces on Tuesday, but said her department would be releasing enrollment figures at regular intervals.

“It takes time to pull accurate data and information together,” she said.

Still, she said she could confirm the number of people in Ohio and the 35 other states they successfully completed the enrollment process, though she expected most issues with the website to be resolved by the end of the day Tuesday. But that has not been the case today.

Ohio consumers can get help from community groups and other organizations with sign-up for Ohio’s marketplace.

The Ohio Association of Foodbanks received $1.96 million to lead a coalition of 14 other state and regional social services organizations to hire and train so-called “Navigators” to help lead consumers through enrollment in the marketplaces.

On Tuesday, the Ohio Department of Insurance said it had certified the Foodbanks’ status as a navigator entity as well as two staff members as navigators, opening the door for the Foodbanks’ navigator program to get underway for the first time.

‘It’s frustrating’

That offers little solace to Ellen Snyder of Oakwood, whose job at Dayton Children’s Hospital was eliminated about a month ago and is now looking for affordable coverage to replace her employer-sponsored health insurance.

“I tried multiple times (to log onto the marketplace) this afternoon, gave up and went out to mow my grass,” Snyder said. “It’s frustrating.”

John Johnson, 42, of Middletown, an unemployed construction worker, spent about two hours Tuesday unsuccessfully trying to purchase insurance. “It won’t let me go all the way through the process,” he said. “When I sign in, they ask for your zip code, and then it goes blank.”

Johnson is doubly anxious because, with the government shutdown, he fears he will lose his unemployment check. “I’m a bird sitting on both sides of the fence,” he said.

He isn’t giving up on buying insurance, however. “I thought it would be like this the first day, that everybody and their brother would be on this site,” Johnson said.

He said he planned to try again this morning — sometime after midnight — in the hopes that “everyone else will be in bed.”

State-operated sites also experienced glitches. Rhode Island’s site opened as scheduled, but was quickly overwhelmed by visitors and went down. A spokesman for the New York Department of Health blamed problems with the 2 million visits to the website in the first 90 minutes after its launch. Washington state’s marketplace used Twitter to thank users for their patience.

Exchange officials in Colorado said their website would not be fully functional for the first month, although consumers will be able to get help applying for government subsidies during that time.

Connecticut seemed to be a bright spot. Access Health CT confirmed the marketplace logged 10,000 visitors in the first three hours of operation Tuesday and 22 enrollments. A family of three was the first to sign up for coverage.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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