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And they're off! Insurance markets open, but not quickly

A woman looks at the insurance exchange internet site October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. But the site crashed almost immediately after opening.
A woman looks at the insurance exchange internet site October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. But the site crashed almost immediately after opening.KAREN BLEIER / AFP - Getty Images

The federal government shut down on Tuesday, but Obamacare was full steam ahead … sort of.

The new HealthCare.Gov website collapsed early Tuesday morning under the weight of 2.8 million users,said Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

"As with any product launch, there will be glitches. We will fix them," Tavenner told reporters on a conference call.

“Sorry, Health Insurance Marketplace Live Chat isn’t available right now,” the website advised. “We apologize for the inconvenience. Please try again later, or call your Customer Service Center at 1-800-318-2596.”

President Barack Obama said it crashed under the weight of a flood of users. "“More than 1 million people visited before 7 in the morning,” he said, adding:

“There were five times more users than have ever been on at one time. That gives you a sense of how important this is to Americans around the country," Obama said in an address aimed mostly at criticizing the federal government shutdown.

That doesn't make the exchanges a failure, however, Obama said. "A couple of weeks ago, Apple rolled out a new operating system, and within a few days they found a glitch and fixed it," he said. “I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads -- or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t. That’s not we do things in America. We don’t actually root for failure.” 

The federal government apologized via Twitter. “We're working to fix these issues as soon as possible. Thanks for your patience,” @HealthCareGov tweeted. 

That means people in the 36 states where the federal government is running the health insurance exchanges couldn’t sign up right away on the first day.

Republicans in Congress used the new ammunition to immediately attack the Administration's plans for health reform. 

"Today, across the country, Americans are attempting to purchase health insurance on Obamacare exchanges and are being met with crashing websites, missing price information, confusing forms and in some cases, exchanges that had to delay their start date because they aren't ready yet," said California Republican Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee .

"These 'glitches,' which the President is trying to brush off, reveal how totally unprepared the government is for this launch even with three and a half years to prepare."

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican who has been a critic of the ACA, tweeted a picture of her state's malfunctioning site. "#ObamaCare exchanges open today and #WA State's website isn't even working. Precursor to the complications to come," she said.

Tony Jewell of Ventnor, N.J., was disappointed but not surprised.

“I did not log on this morning expecting to sign up for health care today and they didn’t let me down,” said Jewell, who says he quit a full-time job to open his own public relations business, in the expectation that he could buy health insurance on the new exchanges.

“I would have been pleasantly surprised if it had worked,” added Jewell, who tried to log onto the federal exchange website in his home state of New Jersey.

Maryland's site for enrolling people crashed early Tuesday. "We are currently experiencing a high volume of traffic on and we want to make the experience as positive for everyone as possible. Please check back later," the site advised. California's site also seemed stuck.

The health insurance exchanges are at the heart of the changes being made by the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which is taking effect in stages. Tuesday is the first day that people who don't have health insurance can begin to sign up, either on the federal exchange, or on state exchanges in the 14 states that are running their own.

But it's a six-month open enrollment period, so people do not have to get signed up the first day. The government and advocacy groups, anticipating problems, have hired thousands of "navigators" to help walk people through the process, which even on a good day was expected to take 45 minutes or longer.

Jewell, a Republican who says he is embracing Obamacare reluctantly because there’s nothing better being offered, is confident the health exchanges will eventually work. “As a patient, I assume they will get the program up and running,” he said.

And he knows it can be difficult to launch a new program. Jewell was a spokesman at the Health and Human Services Department under former President George W. Bush. 

"I am a Republican who is sympathetic to the program. It would be helpful if it worked for me. I assume it will,” he said. He and his wife have pre-existing health conditions that make it difficult to buy private insurance, but the ACA forces insurers offering new policies to take all comers, regardless of previous health issues.

Jewell was among thousands of Americans who were ready to try the new online marketplace. He doesn’t think it crashed under the weight of demand, however.

“I was trying during the 7 am hour on the East Coast. I can’t believe people were setting their alarms to get up for Obamacare,” Jewell said.

But some states suggested that is what did happen. “We logged 10,000 visitors in the last 3 hours,” Connecticut’s exchange administrators tweeted at @AccessHealthCT. “22 enrollments so far. Make sure your browser is updated if you are having problems!” 

Some saw the website crashes as a sign of success. "This plan that the Radical GOP says is so bad is on the verge of crashing due to such high volume," said Mark Nelson of Kingman, Ariz., in a Facebook posting.