FORT LAUDERDALE — After months of build-up, Florida residents were met with technology glitches Tuesday as they tried shopping for health insurance for the first time on government-run online marketplaces, a key component of the Affordable Care Act. Many were unable to enroll, but federal health officials stressed the program was nevertheless off to a good start.
Consumers logging onto healthcare.gov received an apology message for delays due to high traffic. The wait times at the call center and for an online chat operator were also longer than expected. More than 2.8 million people visited the site in the past day; and there were seven times more users on the website Tuesday morning than had ever been on the Medicare website. The online speed is gradually improving and the problems are being fixed, said Marilyn Tavenner, an administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
"This is day one of a process. We're in a marathon, not a sprint," she said.
One organization said their navigators weren't able to access the website at all. The Epilepsy Foundation of Florida also reported very light foot traffic around the state, but said phone inquiries were high. Their counselors sat alone in a Pensacola office with no visitors Tuesday.
But other organizations were not deterred by the technology delays and relied on back-ups, including paper applications.
"We were prepared," said Jodi Ray, of University of South Florida, which received the state's largest federal navigator grant. Her organization enrolled a steady stream of applicants with scheduled appointments.
Community health centers around the state were also busy, with roughly 100 eager consumers in just a few hours at one Miami health center. Counselors helped enroll consumers early in the morning before the website crashed, said Andy Behrman, president and CEO of Florida Association of Community Health Centers.
It will likely take weeks or months to gauge the law's success. Federal health officials were unable to provide data Tuesday on how many people enrolled in Florida and other states. Coverage doesn't begin until January, and the enrollment period ends in March.
Gepsie Metellus, executive director of the Sant La community center in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, called Haitian Creole radio programs Tuesday to tell people they have plenty of time to enroll and warn people against anyone who charges them a fee for information about the federal health law referred to by many as "Obamacare."
The liberal advocacy group Families USA estimates that roughly half of Florida's 3.5 million uninsured residents will be eligible for federal subsidies to help them purchase insurance. But the amount will vary widely depending on income, location, the plan, family size, age, and even tobacco use. Florida residents can choose from 102 plans, the second-highest of any state. Federal health officials were supposed to finally reveal how much plans would cost in Florida's marketplace early Tuesday morning, but that was also delayed.
The Obama administration is also working to remove the confusion surrounding the new health law.
Alex Gomez, a Miami father of four, said he planned to wait awhile before shopping on the online marketplace, where he hopes to purchase a better quality plan than the $500 a month high-deductible family plan he currently has.
"Nobody knows what Obamacare is. One person says it's going to be good, another person says it's going to be bad," said Gomez, a 38-year-old painting contractor. He didn't know he is likely eligible for a government subsidy through the new marketplace. Residents making less than roughly $46,000 a year and a four-person family with an income of less than $94,000 a year may receive vouchers to help offset premium costs.
The exchanges are meant to have the feel of an online travel website, where consumers can compare prices and benefits of different plans. But in a potentially significant delay, the administration told Hispanic groups last week that the Spanish-language version of the website will not be ready to handle online enrollments for a few weeks. In Florida, nearly 580,000 Hispanics are eligible for health coverage through the marketplace.
"I'm concerned about the delay knowing there was a large Latino community that needed it. I don't think that was very well planned," said Maria Pinzon, executive director of the Hispanic Services Council in Tampa.
But she stressed that one-on-one outreach will be more powerful than the government website. Her organization is partnering with several local churches.
Supporters of the law have criticized Republican Gov. Rick Scott, saying his concerns over consumers' personal information are a scare tactic to hinder enrollment. Scott and the Republican-led Legislature have been reluctant to implement portions of the federal health reform. State officials recently banned counselors from entering county health departments to help sign people up for health insurance.
The state has only approved 34 of 96 navigator licenses so far. The counselors are not legally allowed to conduct outreach without a license, which means a majority weren't able to do their job on launch day.
Insurance plans offered through the exchange have undergone a major upgrade. As of Jan. 1, insurers can no longer turn away people with pre-existing medical conditions, and they will be limited in what they can charge to older policy holders. Consumers' financial exposure will be capped. Insurers are also required to offer beefed up benefits under the plans, so while prices may increase, consumers will be getting a meatier product.
Jennifer Kay contributed from Miami and Melissa Nelson-Gabriel from Pensacola.