HELENA — The first day of shopping for health insurance on Montana’s Affordable Care Act marketplace was one of frustration for potential users Tuesday, as the online shopping site didn’t work properly.
Shoppers trying to create an account on www.healthcare.gov ran into delays, with messages of “Please wait,” and often couldn’t get past the initial registration steps to create an account and start shopping for subsidized policies.
Health insurers selling policies on the Internet marketplace and state Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen said the site apparently crashed because of heavy traffic, and urged Montanans to be patient.
“I’m going to continue to say what I’ve been saying at public meetings around the state (within the last week) — that I think we all expected there will be glitches,” Lindeen said.
Lindeen said consumers can still study up on the available policies, and should “hang back for a couple of days” and then perhaps revisit the site to attempt to sign up and shop.
John Doran, director of strategic marketing services for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana, said the company is advising consumers that there’s plenty of time to sign up for policies.
Policies on the marketplace aren't effective until Jan. 1 anyway, he said, and consumers have until Dec. 15 to buy a policy starting that date and until March 31 to get a policy that meets the federal mandate to have health insurance by 2014.
“We continue to remind customers that they have until next year, and that we’ll be here to help them throughout the process, from Oct. 1 until the final deadline,” Doran said.
The Internet marketplace is a linchpin of the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 law that aims to expand health coverage to the millions of Americans without it.
The law requires nearly all Americans to have or buy health insurance by 2014 and the marketplace offers subsidized policies to most people earning between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
Marketplaces exist in each state and Tuesday was their opening day — but problems were reported across the country, as interest in the marketplaces exceeded expectations, health and insurance officials said.
The federal government constructed and is operating the Montana marketplace, after the 2011 Montana Legislature, controlled by Republicans, refused to authorize state construction of the site.
Lindeen, a Democrat, said she was able to get onto the site early Tuesday morning and sign in. But later in the morning and throughout the day, the site wasn’t working.
Consumers often were met initially with a message that said “Please wait. We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we’re working to make your experience better.”
After a wait of 10 minutes or more, the site allowed users to begin the registration process, but faltered when it required users to answer security questions that would not appear.
Lindeen, who said she communicated with fellow insurance commissioners throughout the day, said it appeared that most of the problems occurred in states where the federal government was operating the marketplace.
U.S. Senate Republicans’ press office released news reports Tuesday showing widespread problems with the state-based marketplaces, and a spokesman for the state Republican Party said Obamacare should be replaced with a “free-market alternative that lets Montanans make their own choices about buying health care, rather than trying to push people to buy in a government-approved manner.”
“Senator (Max) Baucus said that the implementation of Obamacare could be a train wreck, and he was right,” said Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the state GOP. “Obamacare doesn’t help Montanans.”
Baucus spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said Tuesday that Baucus, D-Mont., the chief author of the law, is fully supportive of the law and has been tough on the Obama administration's implementation efforts because he wants to make sure Montanans can take advantage of the law's benefits.
"Folks who really care about Montana working families would put them ahead of politics and spend their energy working with Max to improve the law and make it work better for Montana instead of shutting down the government in order to send us back to the days when insurance companies could deny coverage to kids because they were sick," she said.
Insurers and Lindeen said the rush of customers that crashed the system show there’s a high interest in the marketplace and what it has to offer.
“I think it tells you that people are desperate for good (health) insurance,” said Lindeen. She noted that she was met by packed houses at public meetings she conducted last week across the state, to explain the marketplaces and Obamacare.
Jerry Dworak, CEO of the new Montana Health Co-op, which is selling policies on the marketplace, said the company was flooded with callers and emails Tuesday.
Some people went ahead and bought policies, without subsidies, which are available only if you buy through the online marketplace, he said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it out there in my life,” he said. “It’s like a campaign commercial for the Democratic Party.”