Kala Sanders owes more than $10,000 in doctor bills and wanted to be Wisconsin’s first person to get insurance under the Affordable Care Act. A faulty computer system delayed her attempt to obtain coverage for a stomach ailment whose cause she doesn’t know.
“The emergency room is where I go for health care,” said Sanders, 31, a Milwaukee nursing student who said she has twice been denied coverage. “One bill alone was $5,700.”
It was a familiar story from the startup of insurance exchanges intended to cover about 7 million people who will use the system to buy subsidized coverage. From New York to Texas to Oregon, computers froze -- some all day -- delaying the enrollment of people on the program’s first day.
Fourteen states have their own online exchanges, with the rest run in whole or part by the U.S. government. They are open to people who buy coverage on their own and employees of businesses with 50 or fewer workers, as well as those currently shut out of insurance because of cost or a medical condition.
The exchanges are supposed to help consumers access federal subsidies and choose from private insurance plans that take effect Jan. 1, when the law requires all Americans to obtain insurance. They are at the heart of the law’s efforts to cover more of the 48 million uninsured Americans.
After delays and computer crashes early in the day, systems in eight states and the District of Columbia were running by midday. Websites for Oregon, Washington, New York and Connecticut were not responding. California’s system had as many as 10,000 web hits a second, said its head, Peter V. Lee.
Onki Kwan, a 29-year-old lawyer in San Francisco, ran into obstacles.
“I logged on at 10 a.m. today and exactly one page loaded and it’s already 11,” she said. “The thing is still spinning.”
Rudy Montalvo, a Los Angeles retiree, tried to sign up -- until the system crashed.
“I inquired through a private insurance agent and the cheapest we could get was more than $200 a month,” said Montalvo, whose 57-year-old wife, Lupita, is uninsured.
Montalvo said he’ll sign up later.
“It looks like we’ll be paying $15 or $20 or possibly $25 for an entire package of medical insurance,” Montalvo said.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee, whose state is home to Microsoft Corp. and Amazon.com, asked for understanding after the enrollment system sputtered to a stop.
“We know what launches are like,” said Inslee, a Democrat.
Wisconsin was also unprepared.
“The server that handles enrollment was simply overwhelmed,” said Jessica Gathirimu, director of family and community health for Milwaukee. “They are experiencing far greater numbers than anticipated.”
Because Texas is not expanding Medicaid health insurance for the poor, fewer than half of the state’s 6.5 million uninsured residents will be eligible for new policies, said Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. The Austin group works on behalf of poor and middle-income citizens.
At Nuestra Clinica del Valle in San Juan, Texas, application counselors couldn’t enroll anyone because of computer trouble. Jose Huerta, a community outreach assistant, went through half a pack of cough drops explaining the marketplace to dozens of clients.
Foundation Communities, an agency assisting enrollment in Austin, is urging people to come back tomorrow rather than wait for the system to be fixed, said Elizabeth Colvin, director of the InsureTexas program.
“A lot of people with pre-existing conditions came in and said they are relieved that they are finally going to be able to have insurance,” Colvin said.
Gary Allen was first in line at Foundation Communities.
“I’ve been waiting for Oct. 1 for a long time and I wanted to be first,” said Allen, 53, a former nursing-home maintenance supervisor who had arrived before the doors opened.
Allen will wait another day.
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