Revamped Obamacare site gets mixed reviews

Last updated 05:55 04/12/2013

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President Barack Obama's chief of staff said today that more than 1 million new visitors had checked out the HealthCare.gov website yesterday, the first day after a major overhaul of the troubled site used to shop for health insurance required under new reforms.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the website's new queuing system, used in times of high traffic, worked "pretty well," with 13,000 visitors choosing to receive an email to return later in the day when there was less traffic, and half of that group accepting that invitation.

"No matter what, we're going to see this thing through," said McDonough, who spoke to a forum organized by Georgetown University and law firm Arent Fox.

When it launched on October 1, the website was supposed to make it easy to buy health insurance in 36 states. Other states run their own marketplaces.

Consumers needing health insurance by January 1 have until December 23 to sign up, while all uninsured Americans are required to have plans by March 31.

But the federal website was a flop, frustrating users with errors and slow speeds.

"That's on us. That's on me," McDonough said, echoing apologies that Obama has made for the disaster that has damaged the president's credibility and popularity.

After weeks of around-the-clock fixes, and as the December 23 looms, the government said on the weekend that the website should work well for most Americans.

The White House has signaled that it plans to outline more aggressively the benefits of the healthcare reforms. Obama will kick off the campaign today in a speech at 2.30pm (8.30am NZ time).

Some of those benefits include ensuring that 129 million Americans with pre-existing medical conditions, including 17 million children, cannot be denied health insurance or charged more for it, McDonough said.

McDonough said work will continue to fix the site and that the strong traffic shows there is demand for affordable health insurance.

"I will say that I've worked on many complicated issues - Middle East peace, Iran, and budget deals. And I can tell everybody in this room that reforming the healthcare system is the single most complicated issue I've faced," McDonough said.

However, counselors helping people use the federal government's online health exchange are giving mixed reviews to the updated site, with some zipping through the application process while others are facing the same old sputters and even crashes.

The Obama administration had promised a vastly improved shopping experience on healthcare.gov by the end of November, and yesterday was the first business day since the date passed.

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Brokers and online assisters in Utah say three of every four people successfully signed up for health coverage on the online within an hour of logging in. A state official overseeing North Dakota's navigators said he had noticed improvements in the site, as did organisations helping people sign up in parts of Alabama and Wisconsin.

But staffers at an organisation in South Florida and a hospital group with locations in Iowa and Illinois said they have seen no major improvements from the federal website, which 36 states are relying on.

Amanda Crowell, director of revenue cycle for UnityPoint Health-Trinity, which has four hospitals in Iowa and Illinois, said the organisation's 15 enrollment counselors did not see a marked improvement on the site.

"We had very high hopes for today, but those hopes were very much quashed," said Crowell. She said out of a dozen attempts online only one person was able to get to the point of plan selection, though the person decided to wait.

The site appeared to generally run smoothly early Monday morning before glitches began slowing people down. By 10 am, federal health officials deployed a new queue system that stalls new visitors on a waiting page so that those further along in the process can finish their application with fewer problems.

About 750,000 had visited the site by Monday night local time - about double the traffic for a typical Monday, according to figures from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Roberta Vann, a certified application counselor at the Hamilton Health Center, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said the site worked well for her in the morning but she became frustrated later when the site went down.

"You can get to a point, but it does not allow you to select any plans, you can't get eligibility (information). It stops there," she said. "The thought of it working as well as it was didn't last long."

In South Florida, John Foley and his team of navigators were only able to successfully enroll one of a handful of return applicants who came to their office before glitches started, including wonky estimates for subsidy eligibility. He worried about how they would fare with the roughly 50 other appointments scheduled later in the week.

Although frustrated, most were not deterred, he said.

"These are people that have policies going away, who have health problems. These are people that are going to be very persistent," said Foley, an attorney and certified counselor for Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.

Despite the Obama administration's team of technicians working around the clock, it's not clear if the site will be able to handle the surge of applicants expected by the December 23 deadline to enroll for coverage starting at the beginning of the year. Many navigators also say they're concerned the bad publicity plaguing the troubled website will prevent people from giving the system another try.

"There's a trust level that we feel like we broke with them. We told them we were here to help them and we can't help them," said Valerie Spencer, an enrollment counselor at Sarah Bush Lincoln Center, a small regional hospital in the central Illinois city of Mattoon.

Federal health officials acknowledged the website is still a work in progress. They've also acknowledged the importance of fixing back-end problems as insurers struggle to process applications because of incomplete or inaccurate data. Even when consumers think they've gone through the whole process, their information may not get to the insurer without problems.

"We do know that things are not perfect with the site. We will continue to make improvements and upgrades," said Julie Bataille, communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In less than an hour, Starla Redmon, 58, of Paris, Illinois, was able to successfully get into a health plan with help from an enrollment counselor. Redmon, who juggles two part-time jobs and has been uninsured for four years, said she was surprised the website worked so well after hearing reports about its problems.

"Everything she typed in, it went through," said Redmon, who chose a bronze plan and will pay about US$75 a month after a tax credit. "It was the cheapest plan I could go with."

- Reuters, AP

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