The nation’s top health official is scheduled be in Tampa today to meet with counselors hired to help people sign up for insurance through the new online marketplace set up by the Affordable Care Act.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will get an update from counselors, also known as navigators, from the University of South Florida, which received a $4.2 million grant to help enroll people —the largest such grant in the state.
But it could create an awkward moment since very few Floridians have been able to actually sign up for coverage or even browse plans because of glitches with the federal health overhaul website, HealthCare.gov.
Federal health officials have declined to release enrollment figures. A community health center in Miami said it was able to enroll a small number of people Oct. 1 for about 20 minutes before the site crashed. Cigna insurance agents were also able to enroll what they referred to as a trickle of consumers.
Across the state, consumers and navigators are largely frustrated even though federal health officials sent out a statement headlined Friday “Health Insurance Marketplace Open for Business - Week One Success.”
John Foley, an attorney and certified counselor for Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said he’s worried consumers will lose faith in the system.
“Hopefully our rescheduled consumers will still be interested (this) week,” he said.
“In a few spots we have had some people begin to get frustrated as they came back for appointments and still cannot complete the online processing. They are not blaming the centers, but are very anxious to get online. They also know that there is plenty of time,” said Andy Behrman, president and CEO of Florida Association of Community Health Centers.
Many navigators groups are using paper applications or taking down contact information to schedule appointments when the website is working smoothly. Although a spokesman for the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida said they were having limited success with paper applications.
The Obama administration promised “significant improvements” in accessing the website this week, after taking down the system for maintenance over the weekend. But many in Florida were still unable to enroll at the start of week two.
The website initially worked faster Monday as users answered questions to log into the system, but it suddenly came to a halt before confirming the account.
President Barack Obama and his staff have downplayed the technology flaws and said delays reflected the public’s huge interest in the website. There were 7 million visits to HealthCare.gov in the first two days. But federal health officials acknowledged problems beyond just high web traffic.
Technicians were working round-the-clock to add equipment to expand the site’s capacity and making software changes that had already cut wait times in half since Friday. The site was to go offline again at 1 a.m. Tuesday for additional main tenance, federal health officials said.
“Call center wait times are seconds, not minutes, and people have been enrolling over the phone 24/7,” Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said in a written statement.
The technology fixes could be crucial to the early perceived success of the Affordable Care Act as federal health officials try to capitalize on the hype surrounding “Obamacare.”
Consumers have until Dec. 15 to enroll for coverage that starts Jan. 1. They have until the end up March to sign up to avoid tax penalties.