Debora Costa, right, tries to sign up for insurance coverage Wednesday with help from Alice Cronenberg in Champaign, Ill. (David Mercer / AP)
The second day of the rollout of the nation’s health insurance exchanges ran smoother for consumers in most states — including Michigan — though websites continued to be overwhelmed and phone lines jammed.
Michigan’s health insurance exchange was fully functional Wednesday, and visitors to the website, www.healthcare.gov, were able to sign up for health plans — but the system was so slow that some insurance counselors advised waiting until next week to enroll. The website is shared by 36 states whose Internet marketplaces are run by the federal government.
Tuesday’s grand opening was filled with computer glitches, and it’s unclear whether anyone in Michigan was able to sign up for insurance. The federal government reported that nearly 5 million people had visited the website by early Wednesday.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Fabien Levy said there were 4.7 million unique visits to the website within 24 hours of its opening, and more than 190,000 calls to the exchanges’ toll-free hotline at (800) 318-2596. More than 100,000 people requested Web chats.
“While this overwhelming interest is continuing to cause wait times, there will be continuing improvements in the coming hours and days,” Levy said in an e-mail to The Detroit News on Wednesday.
In Michigan, customers were able to sign up for policies Wednesday, but the process takes too long, said Don Hazaert, director of Michigan Consumers for Healthcare, which has a network of 300 navigators — federally trained counselors who help people shop for insurance and apply for federal subsidies to help pay for premiums. Hazaert advised his navigators to wait until next week to enroll people.
“The national guesstimate is that on average it will take 90 minutes to get people enrolled,” Hazaert said Wednesday. “The way the website is working right now we couldn’t practically do that. Give the fed time to fix the issues and we’ll start enrolling people next week.”
The Dearborn-based community services agency ACCESS reported it was enrolling consumers Wednesday. So was Kathleen Johnston-Calati, who helped people at the Michigan Disability Coalition in Lansing. Johnston-Calati said two of four clients she assisted Wednesday morning successfully enrolled for health insurance policies.
“We’re having a better day because the website is working,” Dr. Adnan Hammad, director of the Community Health & Research Center at ACCESS.
“It was good (Tuesday) because we did have encounters with people, and we provided them with education they need,” Hammad said. “The general population really (doesn’t) have any information about Affordable Care Act; they have no clue what this is about.
“Some come with expectations that ‘I want to enroll me and my family today’ (and) a lot of people think it will be free. The ones that are being seen have never been issued insurance before.”
The launch of the exchanges coincided with the federal government shutdown caused by an impasse in Washington over spending for Obamacare. Republicans seized on the glitches as proof that President Barack Obama’s signature achievement isn’t working, while the law’s supporters said the deluge of visitors to the site was a victory.
Health exchanges are a key component of the Affordable Care Act, which requires virtually all Americans to become insured by Jan. 1.
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.
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. Consumers are encouraged to enroll by Dec. 15 if they want to be insured by Jan. 1.