Health deadline brings a jam on Obamacare website

Melody Vincent explains her income situation to Barbara Bloomfield, a certified application counselor, at St. Elizabeths Wellness Center though the website was down.
Melody Vincent explains her income situation to Barbara Bloomfield, a certified application counselor, at St. Elizabeths Wellness Center though the website was down. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 02, 2014

For anyone who hadn't heard, Lady B was shouting it over the air Monday afternoon.

"I want to tell people one more time that today is the deadline, the deadline, the deadline to get your health coverage," Lady B, who is known as Wendy Clark in real life, told her listeners at Philadelphia's WRNB (100.3-FM).

They heard.

With triple the traffic of the previous record on Healthcare.gov, Monday had the potential to confirm wildly divergent points of view - that new glitches on the Obamacare website showcased the administration's ineptness or that the clamor for coverage proved that the president's signature initiative was on target.

Erik Furness, 47, a North Philadelphia barber who said he "made up my mind at the last minute" to buy insurance, got help applying at St. Elizabeth's Wellness Center on Monday but will have to pick a plan later because the site, he was told, couldn't handle the demand.

Anthony Hutton, 47, had better luck Sunday. He strolled into Independence Blue Cross' Market Street headquarters and walked out with 19 cents-a-month subsidized coverage.

More than six million people had signed up for private health coverage through the new Obamacare insurance markets by last week, surpassing a target set after a disastrous October rollout called the enrollment process into question.

With daily volumes continuing to surge, analysts believe the final tally could approach or even exceed an original goal of seven million estimated by the Congressional Budget Office.

Democrats hope that a successful enrollment could give an important political boost to the administration and its allies, who are locked in an election year battle with Republicans over the future of the Affordable Care Act.

"We're looking at a number substantially larger than six million people enrolled," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

"No one expected us to come back from the brink," he added. "But we have. And I think that merits noting."

Analysts say the enrollment total is less important than the number of healthy policyholders in the marketplaces' local rating areas, which have likely attracted large numbers of older people and consumers with preexisting medical conditions, who are costlier to insure.

As of March 1, over 4.2 million people had selected insurance plans nationwide, the vast majority with subsidies, equal to 88 percent of the administration's reduced goal for that date. The 128,000 Pennsylvania enrollees represented 86 percent of the March 1 goal; New Jersey's 62,000 equaled 94 percent.

It accelerated after that.

"Our sales call volume is up nearly 100 percent from a week ago and we have already experienced what we believe is our highest sales call volume day ever today, and we have six hours to go," Thomas Vincz, a spokesman for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, e-mailed shortly before 6 p.m.

Independence Blue Cross "helped more than 200 customers in our lobby today," consumer marketing director Koleen Cavanaugh said.

Community organizations have been particularly active in the city.

"We have done a massive engagement in the neighborhoods," said Jennine Miller, director of advocacy and public policy for Project HOME, which she said got the word out to 8,000 North Philadelphia residents by going door to door, calling, mailing, and running health fairs.

On Monday, counselors at the project's St. Elizabeth Wellness Center had worked with more than 100 people by 9:45 p.m., with several still waiting. About 90 percent of those found eligible for subsidized insurance will have to complete their applications later because of website problems, a spokeswoman said.

Melody Vincent, 57, has been without health insurance since 1991. She came to St. Elizabeth's from her home in Olney on Monday. "My mother called me and said you need to get down there because we all need health insurance," said Vincent, who works the concession stands at Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park.

For the last 23 years, whenever she needed a doctor Vincent used hospital emergency rooms.

"Now I won't be afraid to go to the doctor because I can afford it. I feel good that I'm going to get something that I can afford to help me," said Vincent, who had to leave the application incomplete.

In New Jersey and other states that have accepted an optional Medicaid expansion to cover most American citizens and legal residents who earn below the minimum eligibility for subsidized private Marketplace insurance, Medicaid enrollments have soared as well.

In half the states that have not expanded Medicaid, like Pennsylvania, people below the poverty level qualify for nothing.

"They are like shocked: 'It doesn't make sense, I make too little to qualify, and if I made $1,000 more, I would get tax credits?' " said Shelly Rahman, a retired head of the life sciences global editorial team for Thomson Reuters who speaks Bangla, Urdu, and Hindi.

Rahman had wanted to help with enrollments, was trained as an application counselor and placed at ChesPenn Health Services' Upper Darby health center, which serves a large South Asian community.

She said about 250 people had been enrolled at Upper Darby since January, although on Monday she was mainly making appointments for people to return because the website wouldn't accept applications.

HealthCare.gov's debut on the final day of a six-month enrollment period was delayed until 8 a.m. after a government tech team noticed a software bug and extended an overnight maintenance schedule to deal with the problem.

Several hours later, new users logging onto the federal website for consumers in the 36 states served by it were suddenly unable to create accounts and begin the enrollment process as volume reached what administration officials called record levels. More problems were reported in the afternoon.

"We are experiencing record volume on HealthCare.gov today," said Joanne Peters, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Traffic Monday was running at triple the volume of Dec. 23, the busiest day the government had seen, Peters said, adding that 1.2 million people had visited Healthcare.gov by noon Eastern time. By 2 p.m., it was up to 1.6 million.

Peters said the day's high volumes triggered the system's virtual waiting room, a holding page where people can wait to be let into the site.

The delays occurred as health-care reform faced a crucial test to see how many people sign up for new insurance under the Obamacare marketplaces.

As enrollment has gathered pace, opinion polls have shown public opinion on Obamacare sharply split, with the law slowly gaining favor. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll on Monday said 49 percent of Americans now support the law, up from 40 percent in November. The latest figures have a 3.5 percentage-point margin of error.

Republicans continued to pour scorn on Obamacare as a mistake that would harm consumers and small businesses.

"Republicans will continue to work to repeal this law," House Speaker John A. Boehner said in statement.

Americans had until midnight Monday to obtain health insurance under the law or face fines. The next open enrollment period for people without extenuating circumstances doesn't begin until the fall, with coverage to start Jan. 1, 2015.

But federal officials say that anyone who attempted to use the site or apply for 2014 coverage Monday would be able to complete enrollment this month.


This article contains information from Reuters. It was done in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

dsapatkin@phillynews.com

215-854-2617

@DonSapatkin

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