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The Obama Administration’s new online health insurance marketplaces triumphed over a federal government shutdown on Tuesday, only to fall immediate victim to internet snags.
Nearly 3 million people tried to sign onto the main federal website at HealthCare.gov, only to be met with frozen screens. Administration officials said it was a testament to the site’s popularity; critics said it was evidence the government has bungled the effort.
"Since midnight, 2.8 million people visited HealthCare.gov. We have received more than 81,000 calls so far,” Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told reporters on an afternoon telephone briefing. “We are making improvements as we speak.”
Claudia and Joseph Schulz of Phoenix quit their jobs in anticipation of being able to sign up, but when the time came Tuesday, they couldn’t get in.
The site loaded the first few pages — slowly — but then it wouldn’t accept required security questions. It's what people found all across the country.
“I was disappointed,” said Claudia Schulz, 33, who recently started an independent real estate business with her 37-year-old husband.
But Schulz also said that she was encouraged about the response in Arizona and elsewhere because she had feared that the public would reject the exchanges — and the Affordable Care Act — that her family needs for health insurance.
“This is a good problem; there’s too many people wanting to sign up,” she said. The Schulzes, who have three children aged 10 and younger, say they will try again.
It was the same for people in Maryland and Michigan, North Carolina and Washington state. Sites started to load, and then froze. Hawaii didn’t even try, advising people to instead fill out an online form and wait to be contacted.
Big states that were running their own exchanges seemed to have better luck. New York state officials said they logged 2.5 million visits within the first few hours; California’s health exchange executive director, Peter lee, told reporters his state’s site was getting 10,000 hits a minute.
“It’s almost like a denial of service attack,” said Bill Curtis, chief scientist at the software quality analysis firm CAST. “It looks like they were overwhelmed. The system wasn’t ready to handle the volume.” In a denial of service attack, people or sometimes computers access a website repeatedly so that legitimate users cannot load it.
"It's kind of like people trying to get tickets to the first Pirates home playoff game, right?" said White House spokesman Jay Carney. (Pittsburgh's baseball team has made it to post-season playoffs for the first time in 21 years.)
The health insurance exchanges are the centerpiece of the 2010 health reform law, called the Affordable Care Act or, more commonly, Obamacare. The hope is to get health insurance to more than 40 million adults who don’t have it now. Many are expected to get it via expanded Medicaid programs, but they can also buy health insurance on the exchanges.
The Congressional Budget Office expects 14 million Americans to get coverage in the first year on the exchanges or via Medicaid expansions.
Insurance companies offering policies on the exchanges have to follow strict rules. They can’t refuse to cover someone just because he or she had a pre-existing condition, such as cancer, diabetes or asthma. They must pay for certain checkups and cancer screenings and they can’t revoke coverage just because someone’s run up a huge bill.
The hope is that once people start getting regular preventive care, their health costs will fall.
Tavenner notes that people have six months to sign up for health insurance on the exchanges, and if they can manage to get signed up before Dec. 15, their policies will begin on Jan. 1. “We are in a marathon, not a sprint,” she said.
Tavenner said some people had been able to complete the enrollment process, but declined to say how many. Some states indicated it was just a trickle. Connecticut officials said 28,000 people visited its site, and 83 bought federally subsidized insurance while 84 signed up for Medicaid, the joint state-federal health plan for low-income people.
President Barack Obama said the crashes were not completely unexpected. Just a couple weeks ago Apple rolled out a new mobile operating system, and within days they found a glitch, so they fixed it," Obama 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."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the glitches were just a demonstration of the demand for health insurance. “If this doesn't show hunger for health care, I don't know what does,” he said at a news conference.
Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who has been a vocal critic, says on the contrary, the failures show the launch wasn’t planned properly. “The Obama administration repeatedly promised Congress that everything was ‘on track’ for launch today,” she said in a statement. “Sadly, another day, another broken promise.”
But not all Republicans were turning their noses up at the exchanges. Mark Nelson, an insurance broker in Kingman, Ariz., said his deeply conservative clients were nonetheless interested. “I have got a lot of customers asking me about this,” he said. “Everybody wants to know what their rate is going to be.”
They would have had trouble finding out. Arizona, like 35 other states, is letting the federal government run its health insurance exchange.