October 6, 2013

Local residents still waiting on health care site

Charles Oliver

— Brian Peters has tried several times to use www.healthcare.gov, the website for the federal health care exchange, but he says he hasn’t been able to get in.

“I’ve tried every day since the exchange opened (on Tuesday),” he said Friday. “I just get a  message saying that a lot of people are trying to use it and to be patient. And after a long wait, it finally says to try again later.”

Peters, managing director at Dalton’s Advanced Insurance Strategies, called the experience “disappointing.”

“We had people inquiring about eligibility and pricing for the products on the exchange, and we can’t really tell them anything at this point,” he said. “We’ve been able to provide them with some estimates. But to give them an actual price we have to get onto the exchange.”

Peters said the problems he had accessing the site are not something he’s used to dealing with.

“But this really is the first time we have had to rely on a website that’s not run by a private entity,” he said. “We rely heavily on insurance companies’ websites to look up information and to sign people up for coverage, and they are usually very reliable. We don’t rely on government websites, but I can’t say I was shocked.”

Resaca resident Teresa Hibbs said she was eager to see the options available on the exchange and possibly sign up for coverage. She tried first Tuesday night.

“I got a page that said there were too many people trying to get in and asking me to wait. Well, I waited and waited and never got in,” she said.

She tried again the next day. She got in and answered a series of questions.

“Every time I answered a question, it seemed like the computer had to stop and think. It was pretty much one question per page and when I answered that question I had to wait for the next page. I’m pretty good on the computer. I can type thirty-something words a minute. But it took me about an hour to answer all the questions just because the system was so slow,” she said.

And when she finally answered all of the questions, the website said it was still unable to provide her with the information on plans and pricing and subsidies she was looking for.

“That was so frustrating. I was one of the lucky ones. I know from what I’ve seen on Facebook that a lot of people weren’t even able to get past the security questions. I got in, spent all that time answering all those questions and still wasn’t able to sign up or even get any information,” she said.

National media report similar stories across the nation, largely from people trying to access the federal health care exchange but also from people trying some state exchange websites. Those exchanges were created by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. They provide a place where American citizens and legal residents can purchase health insurance. Those who meet certain income requirements and who are not covered under Medicare or Medicaid or whose employers do not provide health insurance that meets certain standards for coverage and affordability may receive federal subsidies to help them pay for insurance in those exchanges. Enrollment in those exchanges started Tuesday.

Georgia and 33 other states refused to set up exchanges, citing potential costs. In those states, the federal government is running the exchanges.

Ken Ellinger, an associate professor of political science at Dalton State College, said the first-week glitches aren’t likely to change anyone’s mind about the law.

“The people who had a negative perception of Obamacare are just going to say ‘This is just one more example of the federal government that can’t operate efficiently,’” he said. “And the people who are grateful and appreciative that affordable health care has finally arrived in America are willing to be patient. They will understand that when you have a massive crush of people trying to sign on to a website there are going to be problems.”

The national media have been trying to identify and spotlight people who bought health insurance on the exchanges during the first week with little success. The Obama administration says it doesn’t know how many people bought insurance. But The Washington Post and other media outlets, citing industry sources, say the number appears to be low.

Ellinger said he isn’t surprised, given that Obamacare’s requirement that all Americans have insurance doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1.

“This is a pretty important decision, and it involves a pretty substantial amount of money. It’s like other big decisions. It’s not prudent to make a snap decision,” he said. “The opening of these exchanges is an opportunity to shop, and that’s what people are going to be doing.”

Ellinger said he doesn’t expect many people to make a decision on what to buy until November or early December.

Despite her frustrations with her attempts to access the federal exchange website, Hibbs said she will likely try again in a couple of weeks.

“Maybe they will have all the problems worked out by then,” she said.

Nancy Kennedy, executive director of the Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership, said she expects that many other people in the Greater Dalton area will also be trying to sign on to the website and check out their options.

“I’ve heard that people have been having problems (with the website), but I’ve also heard many people say they are interested,” she said.

Kennedy said that about 25 percent of the people in Whitfield County do not have health insurance.