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Health News Florida
Healthy State tells the stories you need to know to stay well, with a special focus on Florida.We'll bring you the latest fitness trends, new research on preventing and treating disease, and information about how health policy impacts your pocketbook.We report on health using all the tools at our disposal -- video, audio, photos and text -- to bring these stories to life.Healthy State is a project of WUSF Public Media in Tampa and is heard on public radio stations throughout Florida. It also is available online at wusfnews.org.

HealthCare.gov: Waiting, Hoping

Florida's online health insurance Marketplace has been open for business since Oct. 1. But more than a week later, people are still having trouble with HealthCare.gov, the website consumers use to shop for health plans. 

Maggie Banta of St. Petersburgis one of millions of visitors to the site since it opened for business a little more than a week ago. She’s been trying to log on for days, but like many others, she can’t.

"I was really encouraged when I actually got to the log-in screen, I thought, ‘Yay! Now I can figure out what's going on and get the best information,’” Banta said. “I was really disappointed when I wasn't able to get through the log-in process, and honestly, I don't know what it is I'm doing wrong.”

At a brief visit to Tampa on Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius acknowledged the glitches but said work was going on around the clock and that the site is getting better each day. (See Health News Florida's  interview with the Secretary.)

"The first couple of days have been rockier than we would have liked, some of that driven by this enormous flood of interest,” Sebelius said.

Tech experts outside the government have also said there were design flaws.

Banta works part-time and isn’t offered insurance through her employer. Her income is low enough for her to qualify for tax subsidies to help her pay for a health plan on the Marketplace. Before she can make a decision, she said she wants to know what's out there, and how much it's going to cost. 

"I've been trying to go back to the Marketplace since it opened and I just haven't been successful logging in," Banta said. "You go there and it tells you please wait, don't leave the site, you'll lose your place in line, so I've just been keeping it open."

HealthCare.gov is designed to show consumers all of their options so they can compare plans. In Pinellas County, where Banta lives, five companies offer more than 100 plans on the Marketplace.  Federal health officials list all of the plans and prices for Florida and other states  at this site, but that information doesn’t take into account tax subsidies.  

View prices and plans here:

When HealthCare.gov is down, consumers can go to individual companies to research their options available with that company. The Florida Blue retail center in Tampa is set up for people to shop offline for Florida Blue products. Director Katherine Skube said they can help consumers get most of the way through the process.

"We can show you all the plans that we have here, we can do an estimator to see if you're eligible for subsidies, so we can work you through 90 percent of the process right while we are here, and so you feel like, 'OK, I've accomplished something,’” Skube said.

Florida Blue says it has not been able to get anyone enrolled on the Marketplace since it opened for business Oct. 1. And if consumers are expecting to get tax credits to help cover the cost of their plan, they have to finish their enrollment on HealthCare.gov.

Most of the uninsured and those who buy plans on the individual market will qualify for tax credits, Sebelius said during her visit.

Florida Blue employees say they don't have a workaround while the federal website is down.

"If they're eligible for a subsidy, they have to go through the marketplace, and we keep trying.  We keep refreshing it just like everybody else,” Skube said. “We anticipate they'll have everything resolved shortly and we can continue to sign people up.”

Professor Lisa DeMoss from Cooley Law School says just because there are a few glitches now doesn't mean it's time to panic.

"In any event, people have plenty of time to shop and to enroll in an appropriate product,” DeMoss said. “If you apply for coverage by Dec. 15 of this year, 2013, you are assured that you will have coverage in place for Jan. 1, 2014."

Even though Banta hasn't been able to get beyond the log-in screen on HealthCare.gov,  she said she's not too worried -- at least not yet. 

“Even if I wait another month, it doesn't really matter, but I am just curious to find out what am I going have to pay so I can plan,” Banta said.

In this first-ever open-enrollment period for the new online health insurance Marketplace, people can continue to enroll through March 31. 

--Health News Florida is part of WUSF Public Media. Contact Lottie Watts at 813-974-8705 (desk) or e-mail at lottiewatts@wusf.org. For more health news, visit HealthNewsFlorida.org. 

HealthCare.gov has been swamped with millions of hits since it opened Oct. 1.
HealthCare.gov has been swamped with millions of hits since it opened Oct. 1.

Katherine Skube is the director at the Florida Blue retail center in Tampa.
Lottie Watts / WUSF
Katherine Skube is the director at the Florida Blue retail center in Tampa.

Inside the Florida Blue retail center in Tampa.
Lottie Watts / WUSF
Inside the Florida Blue retail center in Tampa.

The Florida Blue retail center can show consumers the plans they have for sale on the Marketplace.
Lottie Watts / WUSF
The Florida Blue retail center can show consumers the plans they have for sale on the Marketplace.

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