Obamacare Insurance Marketplace: Off to Rocky Start

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My goal was simple: to prepare one of the first television news stories describing the prices and user experience for the new online insurance marketplaces provided by Obamacare.

I started on Sept. 30, the day before the marketplaces, also called exchanges, opened, by talking to media relations for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Via email, I requested rate information in advance of the exchanges opening so I could prepare a news story. When the email response I received didn’t answer my request, I got someone on the phone. After some back and forth, I was told that what I wanted was impossible: no advance anything. If I wanted rate information, I’d have to wait along with everyone else until 8 a.m. on Oct. 1, when the exchanges opened.

I then asked additional questions and was assured answers would be forthcoming via email. Nope. Never heard from her again.

Opening day: Oct. 1

6:45 a.m.: The media relations rep told me on Monday that while the exchanges weren’t scheduled to open until 8 a.m. Eastern time, they may open early. While I didn’t believe that would happen, I checked and sure enough, HealthCare.gov was ready to accept new accounts.

6:45 to 7 a.m.: I tried three times to establish an account. This required entering my first and last name and email address, and establishing an acceptable user name and password (at least one capital letter and one number), and supplying answers to three security questions.

After supplying the required information, I got the following message:

Important: Your account couldn’t be created at this time. The combination of first name, last name, and email address aren’t unique.

So rather than telling me the site was too busy to process new accounts, it made me fill out all the information, then implied I’d made a mistake. Nice.

7 a.m.: Thought I’d try a different approach: I called the toll-free number offered at the website: (800) 318-2596. The recording was familiar:

All of our representatives are busy. Please continue to hold and wait for the next available representative. Estimated wait time: 30 minutes.

7:03 a.m.: While holding on the phone, I used another feature of HealthCare.gov — live webchat. Unfortunately, like the phone, it simply kept periodically repeating the same message: “Please be patient while we’re helping other people.”

7:49 a.m.: After listening to Muzak for 49 minutes, I finally got a representative on the line. The call lasted less than two minutes. She asked if I’d established an online account and I explained that I’d tried multiple times, but HealthCare.gov wasn’t cooperating. She then said she was sorry, but unless I had an account, there was nothing she could do to help me.

She suggested I try the live webchat feature. I’d forgotten I was already waiting for that, so I went to check if someone had ever appeared there. They had: at 7:34 a.m. I’d missed them.

8:05 a.m.: I went back to HealthCare.gov for another try. This time I was able to put in my email and user name and password, but when I got to the security questions, brick wall: The drop-down list of questions didn’t work.

9:00 a.m.: Same story as above.

10:00 a.m.: This time the site said “The System is down at the moment. We’re working to resolve the issue as soon as possible. Please try again later.”

11:00 a.m.: Back to what it did at 8 and 9: It let me set up an account, but wouldn’t let me select security questions to complete the process. More time wasted.

Keep checking back. Sooner or later, I have to be able to get on this thing.

12:13 p.m.: Still no dice. But a few minutes ago, I got an email from a reader, saying in part:

I’m not sure why you found it difficult to access the exchanges. I just accessed my state exchange and received many rate quotes in a matter of seconds.

I wrote back and asked whether this reader lives in a state operating its own exchange. She does: Delaware. I don’t. I live in one of the 27 states using the federal platform at HealthCare.gov. Of course, some people must be successfully accessing the federal site; otherwise it wouldn’t be too busy to work properly. Maybe I’m just one of the unlucky ones.

I really wish that my state (Florida), rather than actively resisting the new health care law, had cooperated and built an exchange. Maybe then my experience would have been smoother. Note to self: Vote twice for whoever runs against Florida Gov. Rick Scott in the next election.

1:28 p.m.: Surrender (at least for today). I tried one more time, but the site still won’t deliver the list of security questions. That’s it. I’m done for today.

I’ll summarize my experience with the new health insurance exchange with both good news and bad news. The bad news is obvious: I’m no closer to an insurance quote today than I was 24 hours ago. But the good news is the reason. Presumably I can’t get on HealthCare.gov because the ability to finally find affordable health insurance is attracting an overwhelming number of my fellow Americans.

Good for them. I already have insurance and many of my fellow citizens don’t. So I’ll happily step to the side and wish them a rewarding and speedy experience.

But this story isn’t over yet. Sooner or later, I’ll get an account set up and get some quotes. When I do, you’ll be one of the first to know. Be on the lookout for more.

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