Health website frustrations persist as deadline for fix looms
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WASHINGTON — In Palm Beach, Fla., a legal aid group charged with helping enroll people in health insurance through the Obamacare website celebrated after their first signup at the end of last week.
"There was cheering, there were screams," said John Foley, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, a federally approved navigator for the site. This week, more than a dozen people have come through his office hoping to enroll, Foley said. None was successful.
Even as top federal officials testify in Senate hearings that healthcare.gov is improving weekly, workers on the front lines in the drive to enroll people say the website remains inconsistent, balky and crash-prone. With 24 days left before the Obama administration promises to have the site working smoothly, U.S.-designated navigators from Texas to Florida say the improvements they've seen since a "tech surge" began two weeks ago continue to fall short.
"It's so frustrating," Foley said in a telephone interview. While the site is faster now, its performance remains unreliable. "The whole thing is bizarre," he said.
Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the site's manager, told a Senate panel earlier this week that the technology is improving daily, and now can register 17,000 customers per hour "with almost no errors."
The federal website, which covers 36 states, is intended to help uninsured Americans buy health coverage by March 31 as required under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The administration will say next week how many people have purchased a health plan through the U.S. site, Tavenner said.
Anne Filipic, the former Obama campaign aide who now leads Enroll America, the nonprofit group that has been a leader in marketing healthcare.gov to consumers, said the website controversies aren't registering for many of the young, uninsured Americans targeted by the group.
"In Washington, D.C., you get the sense that the sky is falling," Filipic said in an interview in Los Angeles, where she spoke Nov. 5 at a health-care conference. "But for the consumer, they are actually going about their life and just starting to learn about what their options are."
Enroll America has 200 paid organizers and 8,000 volunteers working to spread word to the uninsured.
"There is without a doubt frustration about the website," Filipic said. "But you're not hearing from people who say, 'I'm just giving up.' You're hearing from people who are just starting to get information about this."
John Nash, who runs a residential real estate business in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is one of those people.
He tried getting on the website twice after it first went online to no effect, he said. This week, he tried again, and was able to create an account and submit an application in about half an hour, at which time he could view more than 100 plans. He logged on again later and spent 90 minutes comparing the coverage.
The only error he encountered during the process was being unable to view the provider directory for a certain plan he was researching. Nash, 55, said he hasn't taken the final step of selecting and purchasing a health plan, but has been surprised by how easy his experience has been so far.
Eric Hogan, 33, a waiter in Miami, said he has completed the process and was "kind of shocked" he could enroll in a health plan this week in just 45 minutes. While he couldn't get on the exchange during the first week it opened, Hogan was inspired to try again on Nov. 3 while watching as guests on NBC's "Meet the Press," criticized the website and the Obama administration's attempts to repair it.
"They were going through the whole, 'this is not working, this is not working,'" Hogan said. "I was like, you know, let me see what's what."
It has been two years since Hogan last had a job that provided health insurance, he said. On the website, he discovered that he qualified for a tax credit of about $96 a month, and selected a plan that will cost $145 monthly after the subsidy.
"I just wanted basic coverage, to make sure I can get what I need, and they had it," Hogan said. "To be without it for two years, and now to get it again, I'm happy about that."
Other consumers have had a different experience, showing the site's inconsistency.
Sara Cespedes, a 57-year-old unemployed resident of Pembroke Pines, Fla., decided to mail in a paper application after two unsuccessful tries at negotiating the site — two weeks ago, and three days ago. The website was probably down when Cespedes tried to enroll the second time. Government officials said the site was off-line for about 36 hours last week, and for 90 minutes on Nov. 4, starting at 12:40 p.m. New York time. Cespedes said she tried the website about 1 p.m.
"Now, I have an application in an envelope I'm about to put in the mail," she said in a telephone interview.
In Texas, nonprofit groups enrolled a few dozen people as of last week out of thousands of attempts since Oct. 1 when the site opened, said Tim McKinney at the United Way of Tarrant County. That's progress, he said, since they had signed up five people as of two weeks ago.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based United Way of Tarrant County has received $5.8 million in federal funds to pay for more than 100 so-called navigators. McKinney, the chief executive officer, said the website's changes since the Obama administration announced a "tech surge" on Oct. 20 have been helpful.
Where a month ago users weren't even able to create an account, now most can register, submit an application and view plans, he said. The breakdown comes when users try to select a plan and make a purchase, he said. The entire process is still slow and "takes a lot of time on the computer," McKinney said.
Other organizations agree there has been progress; just not enough.
"It is an improvement compared to the first week, but still not at 100 percent," said Karen Basha Egozi, chief executive officer of the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida. "Some people, very few, have gotten all the way through."
Market research suggests the uninsured won't decide whether to enroll until closer to the coverage deadline, leaving time to repair the exchange's reputation, said Timothy Ryan, general manager of advertising firm Sawyer Miller, a unit of New York- based Weber Shandwick.
"This wasn't how we envisioned the first introduction to the brand," Ryan, who helped craft ads for the federal exchange, said in an interview at the Los Angeles conference. "If after Thanksgiving there's the functional website that we're all being promised, this will be in the rear-view mirror very quickly. If there's still problems festering, we're going to have a bigger issue on our hands."
Foley, of the Palm Beach legal aid group, said he thinks the site should be taken down, repaired and relaunched, a solution advocated by some Capitol Hill lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Administration officials, though, say they won't do that because Americans are going to the site now to check their options and some are able to enroll.
Don Hazaert, director of Michigan Consumers for Healthcare, said his organization isn't even bothering with the website. While his employees test the site regularly, it isn't functioning well enough yet to be able to consistently enroll large numbers of people, he said. Instead, they are using paper applications and the call center.
"We have to enroll people en masse so we need the website to work efficiently all the time," Hazaert said in a telephone interview. "We aren't there yet."
Pettypiece reported from New York. Alex Nussbaum contributed from New York.