Health Insurance Marketplace Overloaded by High Web Traffic on First Open Enrollment Day


OLATHE – The new online Health Insurance Marketplace experienced a flood of traffic on its opening day, leading to widespread reports of problems across Kansas, Missouri and the nation.

Federal officials, in an afternoon press conference, said that more than 2.8 million people had visited the website in the opening hours but declined to release how many people had been successfully registered or enrolled in health plans by day’s end.

“This is Day One of a process. We’re in a marathon, not a sprint and we need your help,” said Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, wrapping up a brief teleconference with reporters from many of the nation’s leading news organizations.

Tavenner said the agency had fixed a major glitch on the website related to the security question asked during the sign-up process and that the enrollment system should now be working. But sporadic checks of the site by Kansas users continued to return a message noting “we have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we are working to make your experience here better. Please wait….”

It took Hannah Keepes two hours to create an account, which she eventually did by telephone, but the Gardner woman wasn’t complaining.

“I knew there would be some glitches,” she said.

Zibers was helped through the process by Caitlin Zibers, a worker at the Health Partnership Clinic here trained to help patients navigate the marketplace, which was launched as part of the federal health reform law generally referred to as Obamacare.

After two failed attempts to sign up online, when the website would not respond, Keepes successfully filled out the paperwork in an hour-long phone call with a customer service representative.

“I know it took a really long time and it took a lot of patience,” Zibers said. “Yeah, we hit all these glitches, but we were able to work around it.”

Nonprofit officials on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro area also said they were trying to take the problems with the website in stride.

“The first day is always the worst,” said Pam Seymour, executive director of Shepherd’s Center Central, which has two locations in Kansas City, Mo. “I’m confident it will get better.”

The center serves mid-life and older adults, and is part of a federally funded network in Missouri that is providing navigation services to the marketplaces’ users.

Seymour said she was frustrated because without online access, agency representatives were unable to access long awaited pricing information for the plans in the marketplace.

“That could’ve been handled a little better,” she said.

The federal government is operating the marketplaces in more than 30 states. Problems also were reported in the some of the 16 states that created their own, most significantly in Hawaii and Maryland. New York officials reported more than 2 million visits to its online site.

But numbers on how many people were actually enrolled in plans as opposed to simply shopping on the opening day remain to be tallied.

“People have enrolled through both the federal and state marketplaces,” Tavenner said, “but we’re not releasing (how many) yet.”

President Obama in a morning press conference said the public response had exceeded “anything we had expected.”

According to a White House website, Missourians can expect to have an average of 17 plans available to them through the marketplace. In Kansas, the site projects availability of an average of 37 plans around the state.

With federal subsidies, the site estimates a family of four with an income of $50,000 would pay a premium of $282 per month for a mid-range plan in both states.

The marketplaces are cornerstones of the Affordable Care Act. They are intended to make quality, affordable health insurance available to low- and moderate-income households.

Households with annual incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for federal subsidies through the marketplaces, also known as exchanges. The upper threshold for income is about $46,000 for one person or $94,000 for a family of four.

Under the health-reform law, states had the option of setting up their own marketplaces, leaving the task to the federal government, or working in partnership with the federal government.

About 13 percent of Kansans lack health insurance, or about 365,000 people. Between 120,000 and 188,000 of them could potentially benefit from the marketplace subsidies, according to various estimates.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Missouri had more than 850,000 uninsured residents two years ago, or about 14 percent of the state’s population. Kaiser projected the state had nearly 300,000 uninsured adults that would qualify for the marketplace subsidies.

At the Kansas City CARE Clinic, in Midtown Kansas City, Mo., Dennis Dunmyer said the biggest drawback of the computer problems on the first day was that staff could not begin familiarizing themselves with the plans.

“Everybody just wanted to get in and see what’s there,” said Dunmyer, vice president of behavioral health and community programs.

But he said the clinic had not experienced a rush of patients wanting to sign up on Tuesday.

The same was true at the Shepherd’s Center, Seymour said. One woman had wanted to come in and register, she said, but because of the computer problems they told her to hold off until later in the week.

At the Health Partnership Clinic, Zibers suggested that she and Keepes wait about a week and try the website again.

Once it is working right, the website should give virtually instantaneous information on eligibility, Zibers said. The customer service representative Keepes spoke with on the phone was unable to project when that information would arrive in the mail.

“You just have to learn to expect the unexpected sometimes,” Keepes said of the computer glitches.

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