The Obama administration promised "significant improvements" in accessing the federal health overhaul website this week, after taking down the system for maintenance over the weekend. But many in Florida were still unable to enroll at the start of week two.
The website initially worked faster Monday as users answered questions to log into the system, but it suddenly came to a halt before confirming the account. President Barack Obama and his staff have downplayed the technology flaws and said delays reflected the public's huge interest in the website. There were 7 million visits to HealthCare.gov in the first two days. But federal health officials acknowledged problems beyond just high web traffic.
Technicians were working round-the-clock to add equipment to expand the site's capacity and making software changes that had already cut wait times in half since Friday. The site was to go offline again at 1 a.m. Tuesday for additional maintenance, federal health officials said.
Sebelius was in Tampa today to participate in a panel discussion with Tampa-area Navigators and consumers planning to enroll in coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace. Panelists discussed community resources and enrollment efforts underway in Florida.
In August, the Florida Covering Kids and Families program, part of the University of South Florida College of Public Health, was awarded a $4.2-million Navigator Grant to help educate and enroll consumers in the Marketplace. The program, which is part of an outreach and education consortium in the Tampa area, is one of eight organizations in Florida to receive these funds.
The forum was held at the USF Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation (CAMLS), 124 South Franklin St. in downtown Tampa.
"Call center wait times are seconds, not minutes, and people have been enrolling over the phone 24/7," Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said in a written statement.
The technology fixes could be crucial to the early perceived success of the Affordable Care Act as federal health officials try to capitalize on the hype surrounding "Obamacare."
Experts say it's critical to deal with those issues in the first two weeks, noting consumers are typically very forgiving in the early phase.
"If within the first seven to 14 days there's a lot of problems and they recover from it, everybody forgets about it," said Jay Dunlap, senior vice president of health care technology company EXL. "But if you have a stigma attached to you that it doesn't really work well, (consumers) really become frustrated and they will not come back to that site to try second, third fourth time."
Meanwhile, the nation's top health official is traveling to Tampa on Tuesday to meet with counselors hired to help people sign up for insurance through the new online marketplace. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will get an update from counselors, also known as navigators, from the University of South Florida, which received the largest grant in the state to help enroll people.
But it could create an awkward moment since very few Floridians have been able to actually sign up for health coverage or even browse plans because of website glitches. Federal health officials have declined to release enrollment figures. A community health center in Miami said it was able to enroll a small number of people on Oct. 1 for about 20 minutes before the site crashed. Cigna insurance agents were also able to enroll what they referred to as a trickle of consumers.
But across the state, consumers and navigators are largely frustrated even though federal health officials sent out a statement headlined Friday "Health Insurance Marketplace Open for Business - Week One Success."
John Foley, an attorney and certified counselor for Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said he's worried consumers will lose faith in the system.
"Hopefully our rescheduled consumers will still be interested (this) week," he said.
"In a few spots we have had some people begin to get frustrated as they came back for appointments and still cannot complete the online processing. They are not blaming the centers, but are very anxious to get online. They also know that there is plenty of time," said Andy Behrman, president and CEO of Florida Association of Community Health Centers.
Many navigators groups are using paper applications or taking down contact information to schedule appointments when the website is working smoothly. Although a spokesman for the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida said they were having limited success with paper applications.
Consumers have until Dec. 15 to enroll for coverage that starts Jan. 1. They have until the end up March to sign up to avoid tax penalties.
Carolyn Newman, a 50-year-old breast cancer survivor, hasn't been able to access the website yet, but says she isn't worried. She's tried unsuccessfully to purchase insurance for seven years, but was repeatedly turned down because of her pre-existing condition. She was able to get a $1,270 a month plan through the state's high risk pool. The cost will drop to $640 starting in January because the new federal health law bars insurers from charging more for pre-existing conditions.
"I'm willing to sacrifice a few glitches along the way. I've waited this long," said Newman, who is hoping to find a cheaper plan through the marketplace.