By Michelle Singletary
The Washington Post
— One of the most challenged features of President Obama's health care reform -- the insurance exchanges -- is now taking enrollees.
Perhaps it was fate that opening day came the same day the federal government shut down. It was a fight in Congress over opening the marketplaces to millions of uninsured Americans that brought us to this point. As it turns out, a rush to the marketplaces resulted in glitches that were bound to occur with a complex new program, let alone one so controversial.
If you've ever been involved in a major rollout of anything, you know things don't always go as planned. In a speech last week in Maryland, Obama tried to manage people's expectations ahead of opening day.
"Like any law, like any big product launch, there are going to be some glitches as this thing unfolds," the president said. "Folks in different parts of the country will have different experiences. ... Somewhere around the country, there's going to be a computer glitch and the website's not working quite the way it's supposed to, or something happens where there's some error made somewhere -- that will happen."
And it did happen.
The federal government is running the marketplaces in states that elected not to set up an exchange. By 7 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 1, more than 1 million people had visited healthcare.gov, Obama said. As a result, consumers got error messages telling them to wait for a login page.
Consumers trying to access the online exchanges set up by the states also found delays due to heavy volume. Richard Onizuka, chief executive for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, issued a statement apologizing to shoppers experiencing slow loading times or difficulty completing their applications. The site had to be placed into maintenance mode to correct the issues. Even before Minnesota's exchange opened, American Indians, who would enroll on the state's marketplace, were told they would have to wait a week to submit an application because the system wasn't calculating their eligibility for subsidies accurately.
For most people, you'll learn about what health plans are offered in your state and at what cost by connecting with the federal portal -- www.healthcare.gov -- or you can call toll-free at (800) 318-2596.
If you are still having trouble enrolling online, call for help to fill out a paper application. Once the glitches are resolved, online enrolling should be fairly easy. You will have to create an account and then start the application process by entering some personal information such as your income and how many people are in your household. You might be surprised at what question you won't be asked. Starting next year, health insurance plans can't refuse to cover you because you have a pre-existing medical condition.
During the application process, you'll get information on whether you are eligible for subsidies to bring down the cost of your insurance. You'll see various plan options and costs. Once you've selected a plan, you can enroll.
If you sign up by mid-December, your insurance coverage will start by Jan. 1. But don't worry. If you can't enroll by then or you want to wait for the glitches to be fixed, you'll have until March 31 when open enrollment ends. For the 2015 plan (Jan. 1, 2015-Dec. 31, 2015), open enrollment will run from Oct. 15, 2014, to Dec. 7, 2014.
If you live in the District of Columbia or one of the states that have created their own marketplace, you can go directly to the exchange website to get information about your specific insurance options and to enroll. If your state has set up a marketplace, you will sign up with that exchange. However, if your state has elected not to set up an exchange, you will enroll at healthcare.gov.
Marketplaces that were experiencing technical trouble last Tuesday suggested that visitors check out the consumer information sections of their sites. That's a good use of your wait time. Although the exchanges are open for business, there will be major learning curves and still more faults to fix.
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