The new Health Insurance Marketplace is off to a shaky start since its Oct. 1 launch, despite its intention to provide a simple, easily accessible comparison of healthcare plans and purchase coverage. At a Oct. 21 White House Rose Garden event, President Obama acknowledged glitches that have plagued the central online Marketplace, stating, “The problem has been that the website that’s supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody. And there’s no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow. People have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am.”
Users have reported long load times for web pages (with the accompanying message: “Please wait. We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we’re working to make your experience here better. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience!”), blank drop-down menus, error messages (such as “Important: Your account couldn’t be created at this time. The system is unavailable"), long hold times for support calls and the website’s live chat feature, and even inaccurate or missing information.
The tech-challenged Obamacare rollout has created fodder for news outlets and Affordable Care Act opponents. That's left many consumers wondering how - or even if - they can sign up before the deadline when most people – by law – are supposed to have health coverage. That deadline for avoiding a penalty was first reported to be Jan 1, 2014, but on Oct 24, 2013 the Obama administration announced a plan to change the policy so that people can sign up as late as March 31 and not incur a penalty. Even with the deadline extension, people with many factors to consider in choosing their level of healthcare coverage would be smart to get educated on the process now.
The following are strategies for signing up successfully through the Marketplace website, and alternatives for people who don’t want (or who are unable) to use the website.
How to Get Around the Site Glitches
First, try using a few low-tech tactics. Some users have reported improved success when using a different web browser. For example, you might have better luck using Safari over Internet Explorer, or Firefox instead of Chrome. Since there are no posted browser requirements or recommendations on HealthCare.gov, each user may want to try multiple browsers to find the one that works best.
Users also have reported success visiting the website during off-peak hours. Since fewer people use the website during the middle of the night, many users find improved wait times and a better overall experience then. Yes, this does mean tapping into your computer at midnight, but it beats the frustration of not getting on at all. And, you can help expedite the process by having necessary information ready to go. This includes: names, social security numbers, employer and income information, and current health coverage information.
At last resort, just wait until the technical glitches have been resolved. While the code for the front end has been relatively stable, the back end (the code responsible for elements like account creation and sending your correct information to health insurance providers) needs work. President Obama has promised a “tech surge” that will bring outside consultants to the team to address – and fix – the problems with the website. While there is no guarantee that the website will be running with full functionality anytime soon, consumers do have a little time to “wait and see” what happens.
Apply the Old-Fashioned Way: Try the Telephone
You can always also apply over the phone or in person. Consumers can call the toll-free call center at the Health Insurance Marketplace at 1-800-318-2596. This line is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. TTY (hearing impaired) users can call 1-855-889-4325. President Obama said during the Rose Garden event that more staff have been added to the call centers, hopefully reducing the wait and hassle. “You can get your questions answered by real people, 24 hours a day, in 150 different languages," Obama said. "Wait times have averaged less than one minute so far on the call centers. You can talk to somebody directly and they can walk you through the application process.” Consumers should expect the process to take about 25 minutes for individuals and about 45 minutes for families applying for coverage.
Consumers can also apply in person with the help of local navigators: individuals and organizations who have been specially trained and certified to help people sign up for healthcare coverage. Navigators (who are also known as application assisters and certified application counselors) exist nationwide, and are required to be unbiased and provide free services to consumers.
Individuals can also get help via community health centers, hospitals and insurance agents/brokers. Search for information about navigators and health centers in your area by visiting Localhelp.healthcare.gov to find out where to get help and apply for healthcare coverage in person. Enter your city and state or zip code and click “Find Help” to display a list of options in your area, including organization name, address, phone number, office hours, website, email address and areas in which you can receive assistance. New organizations are added frequently, so check back regularly if you still need help applying for healthcare coverage.
Keep in mind, you are not required to get health insurance through the Marketplace. You can still shop for coverage through insurance agents, brokers, and directly through insurance providers. If you have an existing plan that you are happy with, your insurance provider may automatically shift you to the plan that most closely resembles your existing plan, but that meets the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. If you do not like the new plan, you should have until a specified date (Dec. 15, 2013 for coverage that starts Jan. 1) to shop for alternative coverage.
Note: Most people will qualify for new federal subsidies that can help lower health insurance costs, including Cost-Sharing Reductions, which help lower out-of-pocket costs such as deductibles, co-payments and coinsurance; and Advanced Premium Tax Credits, which reduce the amount you pay each month for your insurance premium. In order to take advantage of either subsidy, you must purchase a plan through the Health Insurance Marketplace.
The Bottom Line
Although the HealthCare.gov website has had what could safely be called a less-than-successful launch, it is important to remember that consumers can try certain tactics to improve their online experience, and there are other routes to apply for and purchase healthcare coverage for the New Year, including over the phone and in person.