HELENA — Montana’s federally run health-insurance marketplace, launched Tuesday as part of the Affordable Care Act, was still limping along Friday, with perhaps only a few Montanans having successfully used the website to sign up for an insurance policy.
But advocates of the system urged consumers to be patient, noting they have until Dec. 15 to buy policies effective next year and until March 31 to meet a federal mandate to have health coverage for 2014.
“We have to remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Bob Marsalli, executive director of the Montana Primary Care Association, a group representing health clinics that serve low-income customers. “We don’t want to run out too fast and not be able to finish strong. We have six months of open enrollment.”
Still, Montana’s marketplace — an Internet shopping site where consumers can buy subsidized health insurance — hasn’t worked well its first week, beset by long waits, error messages and other stumbles that prevent consumers from using it successfully.
Frank Cote, director of sales for Blue Cross and Blue Shield Montana, said the company had sold “more than one” policy through the marketplace, including one early on its first day, but he didn’t know the exact number.
Todd Lovshin, vice president and Montana regional director for PacificSource, said the insurer has not received any report from the federal government on people who’ve purchased policies from PacificSource.
The feds are supposed to report that information weekly to each of the three companies selling on Montana’s marketplace.
Jerry Dworak, CEO of the Montana Health Co-op, the other insurer selling policies on Montana’s marketplace, said he knew of no consumer who had used it to buy a policy from the co-op.
“We’ve not gotten anything,” he said. “I think (federal operators of the marketplace) are really struggling right now.”
The marketplace is a linchpin in the Affordable Care Act’s goal of extending health coverage to the uninsured. The ACA, also known as Obamacare, required creation of marketplaces in every state.
Consumers without health insurance, or those looking for better insurance than they have, can shop the marketplace for a policy.
Those earning between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level may qualify for subsidies to help the pay for the policy — but, in most cases, can get the subsidy only if they buy the policy on the Internet marketplace, at www.healthcare.gov.
A paper form can be filled out to determine one’s eligibility for a subsidy, but insurers said it’s unclear how long it will take to process those forms or how one would then buy a policy.
The federal government built and is operating Montana’s marketplace, because the 2011 Montana Legislature, controlled by Republicans opposed to the ACA, would not authorize the state to build its own.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials said Friday they aren’t releasing numbers yet on how many people have used the marketplace to buy a policy, in Montana or any state.
A spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, a division of HHS, said Friday that people are using the system to enroll and that it has been working. She said 7 million people have visited the website nationwide, but had no numbers for Montana.
While the Montana marketplace is barely working, employers of navigators — people trained to educate consumers about the marketplace — said they’re not worried.
Christine Kaufmann, director of the navigator program for the Primary Care Association, said they’re still training people and that navigators will need time to reach and inform people who don’t know the ins and outs of buying health insurance.
“The job of the navigators is to go out and find people who don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “We’re not in panic mode at all. … I’m sure it’s going to work.”