In Week One, Obamacare health insurance exchanges have been so swamped with traffic that they have been groaning under the strain.
That could be a good sign for a law that America supposedly hated — if the Obama administration can get the federal website bugs worked out before those potential customers get scared away.
“I’ve been trying nonstop. It’s not working. We can get to the third screen, and then it dies,” John Foley of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, one of the “navigator” groups that’s trying to sign up uninsured people in Florida, told POLITICO on Thursday. He said the group has put off all enrollment and told customers to come back next week.
“I keep asking people, ‘Do you know of anyone in Florida who has successfully signed up?’ I haven’t gotten a yes,” Foley said.
Administration officials say people have enrolled successfully — though they won’t release numbers — and that the website is getting better. They’ve also said all along that they didn’t expect a lot of people to enroll immediately, that people would browse the website and consider their health plan choices for a while.
And President Barack Obama likes to compare the glitchy rollout of the HealthCare.gov site to the snags that happen when Apple releases the newest iPhone or iPad. Right now, though, this is more like an iPad that crashes every time you try to open an app.
The administration does have time to fix that — but advocates on the ground want them to hurry up.
“I was desperately hoping to be on the news today with people saying, ‘I got my insurance,’” Foley said.
Here are the lessons from the first week of the Obamacare rollout:
They have time to get it right — but not forever
It’s way too early to judge everything about the Obamacare exchanges — Thursday was only the third day of a six-month open enrollment period. Health care experts say the administration has a while to get it right.
But if things don’t smooth out by November, they say, the White House may lose the chance to build confidence in the Obamacare exchanges.
“If it’s not there in a month … there’s going to be a problem,” said Joel Ario of Manatt Health Solutions, the former director of the health exchanges office at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Politically, the White House may not have to worry for a while. The administration has “bought themselves some time to work out the kinks” now that they’ve gotten through the first few days, according to Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. And Republicans in Congress are preoccupied with the government shutdown, and aren’t as focused on the health law rollout.
But there’s also a danger that if people who need health insurance can’t get through the website relatively easily, they won’t come back and try again.
“They have to get it right by late October to mid-November,” says Caroline Pearson of Avalere Health, a consulting company that studies the exchanges.” With that time frame, people will come back. “If you’re aware enough and motivated enough to sign up on Day One, you’re motivated to come back a few days from now.”
But Foley, from the Florida group, is worried.To get insurance Jan 1, people must sign up by Dec. 15.
“There are a lot of people who need this by January,” he said. “I think if they don’t [fix] it soon, it’s a problem … It’s very frustrating for us because we’re feeling the time pressure.”
The volume is real – but not everyone visiting the site is signing up
Administration officials say the Web traffic — 7 million “unique visitors” to HealthCare.gov as of Thursday morning plus more in the state exchanges— proves that people are excited about being able to get Obamacare coverage. The slowdowns reported in states that are running their own exchanges, like New York and Washington state, suggest that the interest is real and not limited to the federal exchange.
Some of the Web traffic is clearly coming from potential customers — but health care consultants say it’s unlikely that most of them are trying to buy health insurance right this minute.
“I do think it’s real,” but “does that really mean people are going to purchase [immediately]? I think you have to be skeptical,” said Ario. “I wouldn’t expect a lot of purchases in the first month. Why would you spend money now for coverage that doesn’t start until January?”
HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said the site is being improved to adjust to the high volume. “Experts are working around the clock and were able to expand system capacity somewhat overnight, cutting by one-third the volume of people waiting to apply,” she said Thursday. “Work on the site continues today to meet the demand and excitement generated in just the first 48 hours of our open enrollment.”
Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, an outside coalition of groups that’s working to sign people up for coverage, says the web traffic shows people are excited about the law, based on what they’re seeing at signup events in the states.
But even if people are just coming to the federal and state websites to look around, that’s OK, she said.
“This is the beginning of a conversation with people,” Filipic said. “They may want to spend some time checking out their options.”