Dee Woods, of Detroit, gets help applying for insurance online from Richard Carson of a community outreach team. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
Nearly 3 million Americans were able to visit online health insurance exchanges Tuesday, despite computer glitches prompted by high volumes of users on the opening day of Obamacare marketplaces.
So many consumers tried to log on to www.healthcare.gov that it crashed by midmorning Tuesday. The website is a one-stop shop for the uninsured in 36 states, including Michigan.
Federal officials declared Tuesday’s opening a success, saying 2.8 million people had visited the state exchanges by midafternoon. Officials, however, declined to say how many consumers successfully signed up for health insurance policies.
Residents of many states — including Michigan — weren’t able to set up accounts needed to access the site Tuesday because of a problem on one page: People were asked to answer security questions that were not listed. Problems were reported with health insurance exchanges in Minnesota, Maryland, Hawaii, Florida and elsewhere.
Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Financial and Insurance Services, said the state doesn’t havedata on Michigan’s health exchange because it is operated by the federal government.
At the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn, dozens of people were in line waiting for help with their applications by the time doors opened Tuesday.
“I didn’t count, but all the seats downstairs and upstairs were taken,” said Madiha Tariq, manager of the navigator program at ACCESS. “Even at 8:15, people were lined up.”
Fatme Cheaito of Dearborn Heights showed up at ACCESS twice on Tuesday, hoping to enroll in a plan. The website was down in the morning, so she came back later. Al Baalbaki, a federal navigator, helped her log on to the site, but she was unable to establish an account.
“In this case, the market isn’t ready yet,” Baalbaki told the disappointed mother, who cradled her 3-year-old son, Ali, in her arms.
Several of Michigan’s navigators — those specially trained to help consumers use the federal website — interviewed by The Detroit News said they were not able to enroll a single customer for an insurance plan.
More than 1 million Michigan residents are uninsured.
Asked if his organization was able to get a single citizen signed up for insurance, Don Hazaert, director of Michigan Consumers for Healthcare, which has a network of 300 navigators, said, “No, it doesn’t appear so.”
Hazaert’s network fielded hundreds of calls from consumers who dialed the federal hotline at (800) 318-2595 after failing to log on to the website — and then couldn’t get through on the phone. The hold time for an operator was about 15 minutes during the midmorning hours.
“It’s a difficult problem for everybody with the government shutdown happening the same day,” Hazaert said.
Kathleen Johnston-Calati, a navigator, said it was busy Tuesday at the Michigan Disability Coalition in Lansing. But by 7 p.m., she had not been able to enroll anyone in an insurance plan due to the computer glitches.
The exchanges were opened against the backdrop of the federal government shutdown caused by an impasse over spending for Obamacare. There was concern that a shutdown would keep people away from the exchanges.
“This is certainly a historic day for each of us,” said Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Tavenner said glitches were to be expected. “We are making the improvements as we speak,” she said. “This is day one of a six-month process. We’re in a marathon, not a sprint.”
Tuesday’s launch was a key step in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which requires virtually all Americans to become insured by Jan. 1. Of more than 48 million uninsured Americans, about 18 million are expected to gain coverage — through Medicaid’s expansion in 26 states, including Michigan, employer-paid plans or by buying policies on state exchanges.
Health care policies purchased through the exchanges won’t take effect until Jan. 1, and buyers have until March 31 to sign up without penalty.
Insurance purchased on the exchanges — as well as employer-paid health plans — will include free preventive care and must provide certain “essential health benefits,” such as mental health care, substance abuse treatment, hospitalization and prescription drugs, as well as dental care for children.
An estimated 90 percent of uninsured Americans will qualify for federal subsidies to help them buy insurance on the exchanges, according to the Congressional Budget Office.