WASHINGTON – Confusion persisted Wednesday around the long-awaited opportunity for Americans to sign up for coverage through new health-insurance marketplaces, with the federal website for more than half the states remaining balky and health plans uncertain whether they had any new customers.
The federal site, Healthcare.gov, was sluggish and flashed error messages much of the day. The Obama administration said the delays were simply the result of an initial rush of people flocking to the site – 4.7 million unique visitors in the first 24 hours – while some in the health care industry suggested that the problem was more serious.
Officials at the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services insisted that some people were able to get far enough into the site to peruse their insurance options, find out whether they qualify for financial help and ultimately enroll in a health plan. But administration officials, for a second day, declined to disclose how many people actually had enrolled and where in the country they live.
Meanwhile, interviews with health insurers, industry consultants, nonprofit groups and people trying to sign up for coverage suggested that the number was low. Some companies that are offering plans on the federal site said Wednesday that no one had signed up with them.
Very, very few people that we’re aware of have enrolled in the federal exchange, said one insurance industry official, who like many in the industry, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for possibly offending the Obama administration. We are talking single digits.
A spokesman for one major Blue Cross Blue Shield plan in a southern state said that, as of Wednesday afternoon, it had not received word from federal health officials of any customers who had completed enrollment in the plan – even though a local news outlet had reported about a man who thought he had signed up. So, plan officials didn’t know whether the man’s enrollment was incomplete or whether the federal reporting of enrollment was running behind.
Whether the snags of the opening days – and the apparently small number of people enrolling right away – present a long-term problem is a matter of intense debate, given that consumers may sign up for the new coverage for the next six months.
Some insurers and policy specialists speculated that the small trickle of early enrollments reflects prudent decisions by consumers to shop carefully.
On the other hand, others said that the early kinks, especially if they persist, could undermine consumer confidence in a law that already has sparked fevered political opposition and widespread public confusion. Everybody will give you a few days, said Peter Beilenson, the chief executive of Evergreen Health, an insurer that is selling policies on the Maryland exchange. But by next week, it’s got to be up and running.