When Charlene Brousseau first tried a month ago to sign up for health insurance through new online marketplaces, she remained optimistic despite some technical problems.
Now, the Manchester woman is thoroughly fed up with the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov, the federal government’s website for the new marketplaces. Over the last few weeks, Brousseau has tried to apply for health insurance three times and called for help every other day, she said. Twice, she was told her application couldn’t be located. Her third application, filed more than two weeks ago, remains in a bureaucratic no man’s land.
A question she’s asked about how to report her taxable income remains unresolved, so she still doesn’t know if she qualifies for financial help to afford insurance. She said she was told on Oct. 10 to call the IRS for an answer. They were closed due to the government shutdown.
“I am so upset and so frustrated to no end,” said Brousseau, 61. “It’s been a horror show.”
Technical glitches and outages have plagued Healthcare.gov since its Oct. 1 launch, preventing many people from signing up for health plans. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama’s top health official apologized for the problems, calling the rollout a “debacle.” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, testifying at a congressional hearing on the website at the center of Obama’s signature health reform law, promised to earn back the confidence of millions of disappointed Americans, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile in Boston, Obama addressed reports that hundreds of thousands of people have lost their health coverage in recent weeks, a separate problem he laid at the feet of “bad apple” private insurance companies while defending the health care law.
Healthcare.gov serves 36 states, including Maine, that opted to let the federal government run their health insurance marketplaces. In states operating their own marketplaces, the rollout has been generally less rocky, though not without problems.
The marketplaces, also called exchanges, serve a relatively small portion of the population, small businesses and individuals who buy their own health insurance, rather than receive coverage through work or government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.
The federal government has yet to release enrollment data for Healthcare.gov, leaving health advocates in Maine and many other states wondering how many residents are trying to sign up. Both insurers offering marketplace plans in Maine, however, report significant interest.
“Although it is too soon to provide [Maine] enrollment details at this time, we have seen unprecedented call volumes and heavy web traffic for our exchange plans, which is consistent with the experience reported by some state exchanges,” health insurer Anthem said in a recent statement.
Sebelius said Wednesday when testifying to Congress that enrollment data would be available in mid-November. The administration has set a late November deadline for resolving the issues at Healthcare.gov.
Maine Community Health Options, a consumer-run insurer based in Lewiston, has seen more than 17,000 unique visits to its website, according to CEO Kevin Lewis. About half of visitors checked out the site’s pages for comparing plans, getting a quote and estimating available subsidies, he said.
While worries remain that the technical problems will sour consumers on the marketplaces and lead to lower enrollment in the first year, MCHO has heard from people grateful for affordable coverage that allows them to see their doctor of choice, he said.
“The success stories have been really encouraging, and heartening, to see what a dramatic impact the new coverage opportunities hold for so many Maine people,” Lewis wrote in an email. “We’re a tenacious bunch here in Maine, and so I’m optimistic that we’ll see our way through this and realize success in getting more people into meaningful and affordable coverage than ever before.”
Before the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, passed in 2010, more than a third of Mainers who bought their own insurance faced steep deductibles of $7,500 to $15,000, according to 2009 data collected by the state’s insurance bureau.
One glimmer of hope for Brousseau, who retired from a job in education after her husband suffered a stroke, was that she found a plan through MHCO that she thinks will offer her good coverage. If she ultimately qualifies for a tax credit, the new plan would cost her far less than the Anthem plan she shells out $955 a month for now.
Susan Farley, a health marketplace “navigator” assisting consumers through the Washington Hancock Community Agency, said she’s spoken to more than 300 people over the last month. While she hasn’t managed to sign anyone up through Healthcare.gov yet, she heard one local individual finally made it through, she said.
Healthcare.gov’s phone line is working well and paper applications, which can be printed off from the site, have been processed promptly, Farley said.
Some locals are putting off signing up until after the technical glitches are resolved, but others are eager for coverage, she said.
“There are people right now who don’t have insurance that are so desperate, they’re willing to do anything, including filling out paper applications,” she said.
Like Farley’s organization, a number of marketplace “navigators” and assisters are turning to old-fashioned paper applications amid the online roadblocks, according to Wendy Wolf, president and CEO of the Maine Health Access Foundation, which spearheaded Enroll207.com to help Maine consumers sign up for coverage through the marketplaces.
Enroll 207’s Facebook page has seen the most interest from older women looking for insurance, she said, rather than the coveted young, healthy adults who are crucial in offsetting the higher costs of older, sicker individuals.
“All of us will need to reorient our energy when the Healthcare.gov website is fixed to really try and engage and sign up the younger age cadre into the insurance products,” Wolf said.
Enroll 207, loathe to send people to Healthcare.gov only to become frustrated, has temporarily tempered its outreach efforts, scaling back some ads and TV commercials, she said.
There’s no excuse for the site’s problems, but once it starts working, focus will shift to the more important question about health insurance under the Affordable Care Act — “Is this affordable and am I getting good value for my dollar?” Wolf said.