Volume, software issues slow health insurance market debut in Dallas, nation

by Jim Landers

Source: Dallas Morning News

Heavy traffic and software glitches slowed the online search for health insurance Tuesday around the country and in Dallas as millions of Americans tried to shop on the new federal marketplace.

Federal officials vowed to iron out the problems and move ahead with the Affordable Care Act's biggest changes so far to the nation's health care system. Insurance brokers advised clients to wait a few days.

More than 2.8 million people went to HealthCare.gov to explore the site by Tuesday afternoon, said Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services. She acknowledged that volume was heavy and software glitches occurred. She said some people had enrolled for insurance, but she offered no estimate for how many.

"While this is the first day you can sign up, it is certainly not the last," she said. "The enrollment period runs through March 31. People tend to check things out before they actually sign up for coverage."

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, Texas brokers were asking each other in an online chat room whether anyone had enrolled a client on the exchange.

Gwen and Alan Lummus, owners of an online book accessories store called BookMateStore.com, did manage to get on the site and compare plans about 7:30 a.m. The Lummuses were in Texas' high-risk insurance pool, paying about $750 a month each in premiums with a deductible of $7,500 each, until they went on Medicare earlier this year.

"We spent years in the risk pool here in Texas. We were glad to have it, but it cost us an arm and a leg," said Alan Lummus. "Looking online today, it would have been much cheaper had we had access to this. It looks like it would have been about 50 to 60 percent cheaper."

But many in Texas and across the country said they couldn't get that far. State-operated exchange openings were delayed in Maryland and Hawaii to ensure that the websites correctly calculated applicable tax credits.

Texas, where state officials chose not to create their own exchange, shared a federal site with 35 other states whose residents experienced the same wait times and software mistakes.

For much of the day, someone attempting to sign on to the site could get no further than the security questions for password protection. When the site asked users to choose a security question, none were available.

Tavenner, in an afternoon news conference, said that problem was being corrected.

Overloaded site

Most of the complaints seemed based on the volume of people trying to get on the site.

"We've had a difficult time getting into the system because of the overload," said Dallas broker Anthony Wright of Safe Hands Insurance Services.

"You could say it's good that people are actually getting out there - so many, in fact, that it's bogged down," Wright said. "Or you can look at it the other way, and say this proves it's not going to work. I don't know the answer."

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, said the online performance of the exchange justified the stance taken by Republicans who have sought to delay or withhold funding for the Affordable Care Act in the budget impasse that has partially shut down the federal government.

"The government shutdown should not be a surprise to anyone. There was going to be a juxtaposition of these two things, the exchanges and government funding, and I didn't think the exchanges were going to be ready," Burgess said. "People could ask a legitimate question: Do you throw good money after bad?"

Some brokers started the day enthusiastic about the new marketplace and the changes in the law it heralds. Beginning on Jan. 1, anyone who can afford health insurance is required to buy it or pay a tax penalty.

Most Americans get their insurance through work or are enrolled in Medicare, Medicare Advantage or Medicaid and are not eligible to use the exchange. For the uninsured and those who buy their own health insurance, however, the exchange was designed to offer comprehensive policies with tax credits to help make them more affordable.

New business

Lewisville broker Mike Smith, president of The Brokerage Inc., encouraged his Texas colleagues to go after the new business.

"The next few months can elevate any agency willing to get busy working," Smith said on the Internet chat room of the Texas Health Underwriters Association. "Obamacare is not going away. Time to move on and make hay!"

Forty-seven plans are available on the exchange for residents of Dallas County, offered by BlueCross BlueShield of Texas, Cigna, Molina and Aetna.

The lowest premiums tend to be for catastrophic plans where a buyer pays most or all of the cost of medical care up to an out-of-pocket maximum of $6,350. A catastrophic plan from Aetna is available for $199 a month, while BlueCross BlueShield offers a similar plan for $196.10.

McKinney broker Patrick Skinner said he told his clients to wait until the problems are sorted out before venturing into the exchange.

"I would wait until Oct. 15 to Nov. 1," he said. "Coverage doesn't start until Jan. 1. I wouldn't put any personal information out there at least for a couple of weeks."

Devon Herrick, a health care analyst with the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, said he was unable to create an account on the HealthCare.gov exchange either in the morning or at 2:30 p.m. because of heavy traffic.

"The fundamental problems aren't necessarily the computer glitches on the first day,"; he said.

The Affordable Care Act prohibits insurers from denying coverage to people with health problems, while offering little reason for healthy young people to enroll, he said. Herrick said that unless those younger people enroll as well, insurance will become prohibitively expensive.

Others remained positive.

Trevor Fetter, president and CEO of the Dallas-based hospital chain Tenet Healthcare Corp., said his firm has had staff members checking on the exchanges in the states where the company operates.

"It seems like there are plenty of glitches, but things are going well," he said. "I'm very pleased. I think this will be a great consumer innovation."

Staff writer Gary Jacobson contributed to this report.