WASHINGTON, October 1, 2013 - The much-hyped Obamacare healthcare exchanges went live on Tuesday only to be hit by a massive rush of Internet traffic. Amid public distress over the government shutdown, exchange sites around the country crashed and froze, preventing most people from getting information, much less signing up for coverage.
Users experienced delays and error messages at various stages of enrollment on the healthcare pages. While glitches were more prevalent in the 36 states whose exchanges are run by the federal government, some of the state-run systems experienced issues as well.
Officials in Kansas urged residents to wait a few more weeks until unspecified ‘bugs’ could be fixed. In Washington state, the exchange site was completely down for hours. Maryland stalled its site launch far beyond the midnight opening bell, and when it finally went live, many users were still unable to gain access.
Altogether, at least 47 states boasted sites with significant online errors; several were so severe that people could not enroll in coverage at all.
On MSNBC’s Lean Forward program Tuesday morning, a reporter attempted to sign up for Obamacare on camera. After 35 minutes, several error messages, and two unanswered calls to the help center, she waved the white flag.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) remained mum on what was causing the widespread failures, citing only ‘heavy traffic’ as a potential problem.
HHS has been developing the technology for Obamacare sites since 2010. Its failure-riddled rollout has shaken the confidence of some in the federal government’s ability to execute a project of this magnitude. Exchanges for small business have no launch day in site, and after months of heavy advertising, the entire city of Washington, D.C. will be unable to access healthcare coverage until further notice.
President Obama has now admitted that there will months of ‘glitches’ ahead, but did not go into further detail about how those might affect Americans who need insurance. His admission was a shift from previous promises that the program’s launch would be smooth and successful.
Congress shut the government down late Monday night over a refusal to move the individual mandate back one year, synching it up with the national mandate for businesses. Uninsured individuals who do not enroll in Obamacare by March 2014 will be punished under the law.
If there truly are months of glitches ahead, the usual solution would be to move the deadline back to allow time to repair problems. The corporate mandate was pushed back to 2015 in order to give companies an extra year to conform to the complicated law. However, intense partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill precludes any such measures.
For those who are unable to register by the deadline, or for those who opt out of healthcare altogether, the penalty fine will start out small. An uninsured individual will only owe $95 the first year he forgoes coverage, and families will owe just $285. The fine will increase dramatically with time, though: by 2016, that fine could balloon to $695 for individuals and $2,085 for families.
One of the most troubling problems with the exchange sites is the lack of a price calculator. Without a method of comparing plan prices and calculating coverage costs, consumers may make uniformed—and potentially painful—choices about their healthcare.
Some states are continuing to run their sites and enrollment programs without such a tool.
Time will tell if this is just an awkward start for Obamacare, or if Tuesday set the tone for the rest of the law’s implementation. If all goes according to plan, an estimated 7 million people will visit and enroll on the exchange sites in the next six months.
And how many of them will be fraught with errors and omissions.
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