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Health Insurance Marketplaces Open for Business

By Bara Vaida

Reviewed by Lisa Zamosky

WebMD Health News

Online health insurance Marketplaces offering coverage to uninsured Americans opened Tuesday in all 50 states to reports of widespread computer glitches that government officials scrambled to fix throughout the day.

The long-anticipated launch was heralded by President Obama as a first-time opportunity for more than 41 million uninsured Americans to get reasonably priced health insurance. Administration officials downplayed the problems in the opening hours. They said getting to the federally operated Marketplaces, located at Healthcare.gov, was either a slow or impossible process because computer systems were overwhelmed.

Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said that 2.8 million people visited healthcare.gov between midnight Monday and Tuesday afternoon.

She would not provide any details on how many enrolled Tuesday, but said "we can confirm that people have enrolled." She said the administration is working on "a schedule" of when the information on enrollment will be released.

Tavenner said at a press conference that the widely reported problem with security questions was fixed. But one reporter said she had just tried healthcare.gov and still couldn’t get through. Tavenner said that fixes were working their way through the system.

In a briefing with reporters, Obama said: “There have been times this morning where the site has been running more slowly than it normally will because more than 1 million people visited healthcare.gov before 7 in the morning. We are going to speed things up in the next few hours to handle all this demand that exceeds anything that we expected.”

The Marketplaces, also called Exchanges, are a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act. They're supposed to allow people to go onto a computer and shop for health insurance policies. Federal tax credits will be available, depending upon income.

Open enrollment will last until March 31, 2014. New benefits take effect on Jan. 1, 2014, for those who sign up by Dec. 15, 2013.

Opening-Day Complications

For days, Obama administration officials tried to set expectations low and cautioned that there may be technology problems on opening day.

Indeed, WebMD readers reported that when they attempted to access Healthcare.gov, the starting point for the federally operated Marketplaces, they received the error message “Your account could not be created at this time. The system is unavailable.” The Marketplaces are operated by the federal government or in partnership with state governments in 36 states.

In the other 14 states and in the District of Columbia, which are running their own versions of the insurance Marketplace, there were different reports of complications. Maryland’s Marketplace crashed and a message said it was not opening until noon, while Minnesota said its Exchange wouldn’t open until later in the afternoon.

In Vermont, not only was the computer system slow, but also the site won’t accept premium payments until November. In Washington, D.C., the Exchange can’t yet calculate available subsidies for consumers, while in New York, volume was so high, consumers encountered error messages. In Ohio, the online Marketplace crashed repeatedly. Rocky King, executive director of Oregon's online Exchange, said they were holding back some features of the web site for a week or so to make sure it was operating properly.

In California, Jordan Zavaleta, 26, had what seemed like a typical experience trying to explore his options. The aspiring actor says he thinks his state's online Marketplace “must be flooded with people trying to sign up” because the site was moving very slowly.

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