WASHINGTON – Millions of Americans flooded government websites Tuesday to get a long-awaited look at insurance options available under the Affordable Care Act, but the high traffic contributed to widespread computer problems on what President Barack Obama hailed as a historic day.
HealthCare.gov, the federal Web marketplace serving more than 30 states, was jammed for most of the day, with people encountering error messages that froze their applications.
In the states operating their own marketplaces, the experience was spotty. Marylands site, Maryland Health Connection, was down for the morning and sluggish into the evening. Lesser problems were reported in Colorado, Washington, Hawaii and elsewhere.
Obama and federal health officials described enormous interest, with 2.8 million people visiting the federal marketplace since early Tuesday, 81,000 more dialing into the help center, and some people actually enrolling in coverage, though they declined to say how many.
This is life-or-death stuff, Obama said during remarks in the Rose Garden. Tens of thousands of Americans die each year just because they dont have health insurance. Millions more live with the fear that theyll go broke if they get sick.
And today, we begin to free millions of our fellow Americans from that fear.
The problems on the websites were not caused by staffing shortages due to the government shutdown, because most of the government employees involved with the health care laws implementation were not furloughed.
But lingering opposition to the law was central to the Washington standoff that led to the shutdown, which brought a flurry of new attention to Tuesdays rollout of the health insurance marketplaces and likely contributed to some of the Web traffic.
Some states released their own enrollment figures. In Kentucky, more than 1,000 people had completed insurance applications by 5 p.m. In the District of Columbia, 175 people took all the steps toward enrolling aside from cutting a check – and four did.
In California, an enthusiastic supporter of the health care law managed to sign up on the states marketplace, though the process took three hours because the pages kept freezing.
Obviously, three hours is a long time to wait, but it will save me over $6,000, said Andrew Stryker, 34, a freelance television producer in Los Angeles. For that, I would have waited all day.
For Audrey Campbell, a security guard from Woodbridge, Va., the experience was less satisfying. The 55-year-old took part of the day off to sign up for coverage at the Greater Prince William Community Health Center in Virginia, a state that did not build its own marketplace, leaving the task up to the federal government.
A worker told Campbell the site was still down and she would not be able to see details on available plans. She put away the documents she had been told to bring.
Now Ive got to take off work again to come back here, she said.
The marketplaces, also called exchanges, are intended for Americans who are uninsured or buy private insurance on their own. They are one of the centerpieces of the Affordable Care Act, the law enacted 3 1/2 years ago that is setting in motion broad changes to the U.S. health care system.
Once the exchanges are running smoothly, people will be able to enter some personal information and learn quickly if they qualify for Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor that is expanding under the law, or for government subsidies. They may enroll in plans that take effect next year, when virtually all Americans must carry health insurance or face a fine.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia opted to set up their own marketplaces, but the rest defaulted to the federal government.