Tuesday, April 1, 2014

HealthCare.gov stumbles on deadline day as consumers race to sign up for insurance

By Amy Goldstein and Lena H. Sun, Published: March 31
happingtodayacaThe first six-month window for Americans to gain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act closed on Monday with large numbers of consumers speeding to get coverage at the last minute. Some of them encountered obstacles as HealthCare.gov, the main enrollment Web site, faltered on and off throughout the day.

Union halls, shopping-mall kiosks and insurance company lobbies across the country were jammed with people racing to get insurance on the final day before the law required most Americans to choose health insurance or risk a financial penalty.

“It’s like going into the mall on Christmas Eve,” said Brian Lobley, senior vice president of Independence Blue Cross, which set up a “Countdown to Coverage” with extra desks and phone lines in the usually empty lobby of its headquarters four blocks from city hall in Philadelphia’s Center City. Employees whose jobs have nothing to do with sales were pressed into service, and customers were triaged as they walked in, with priority given to people who had not even begun to shop for insurance before Monday.

In Los Angeles, the local affiliate of the Service Employees International Union began an enroll-athon at 5 a.m. and, by the end of the day, had attracted more than 700 people to a lively scene with food trucks, music and more than 50 staffers and volunteers.

By the time President Obama appeared Monday on “The CBS Evening News,” he sounded relieved. “We admittedly had just a terrible start because the Web site wasn’t working,” Obama said, referring to the site’s rocky beginnings. “But given how gloomy I think everybody’s assessment was back in the middle of November, I’d say that we’re on our way to making sure that no American ever has to go without health care.”

By Monday evening, federal officials could not say how many people had signed up. But health officials said that by 8 p.m., 1 million people had phoned in to a network of call centers across the country — nearly a half-million more than the total for any other day since the federal insurance marketplace and 14 similar state ones opened on Oct. 1. And 3 million had visited HealthCare.gov, they said.

Late in the day, more than 150,000 people were on the Web site, and the volume stayed at that level through much of the evening, according to a person familiar with the numbers.

The outpouring of last-minute interest reinforced arguments by the Obama administration and its allies, made since the law was enacted four years ago, that it would become popular once Americans had a chance to get the new health plans that it spawned — and, in most cases, with federal subsidies to help pay for them.

Still, as the deadline arrived, fresh evidence emerged that the law, which has set in motion the broadest changes to the U.S. health-care system in nearly half a century, remains mired in a wide partisan divide. A new Washington Post poll indicates that three in four Democrats support the law — a rise of 11 percentage points since January — compared with one in five Republicans.

The last day of sign-ups contained an echo of the computer troubles that dominated the early months of the open-enrollment period last fall. During two periods of the day that lasted a total of several hours, HealthCare.gov was inaccessible to new customers — and early on, to anyone at all.