Online enrollment for insurance marketplace still difficult
by Patrick McCreless
Oct 14, 2013 | 3324 views |  0 comments | 66 66 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this file photo, application counselors Debra Foster and Haley Thomas help consumers Marvin and Mary Jones with insurance enrollment at the RMC Annex building. (Photo by Trent Penny)
In this file photo, application counselors Debra Foster and Haley Thomas help consumers Marvin and Mary Jones with insurance enrollment at the RMC Annex building. (Photo by Trent Penny)
In the last two weeks, Debra Foster enrolled none of the dozens of area residents who requested her help acquiring affordable health care in the federal insurance marketplace.

But not for a lack of trying.

Foster, a federally funded application counselor based in Anniston, is trained to educate residents about the insurance marketplace and help them enroll online if necessary. However, since open enrollment began Oct. 1, technical glitches and high online traffic have bogged down the federal website tasked with enrolling Americans in the marketplace. The issue has kept some residents from enrolling while also supporting the argument that interest is strong in the federal health care reform program, some health and marketplace experts say.

Foster said Monday that she was still having trouble enrolling residents in the marketplace through the federal website,

"I'm at least able to set up accounts ... but I have not had a complete application yet," Foster said. "People are still really anxious to get enrolled."

Attempts were unsuccessful Monday to reach a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to comment on the problems of the online system. However, HHS did release a statement last week that it was aware of the problems and was working to address them.

The insurance marketplace, part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, offers various health plans from private insurers mainly to Americans who cannot afford health insurance. The costs of the plans are supplemented by tax credits for people at certain income levels. Coverage begins Jan. 1 in the marketplace.

Foster said she recently had to reschedule nine appointments due to the problems with the website.

"Some people have even opted to just enroll by paper form," Foster said.

Foster noted, however, that the difficulties with the website are mainly due to heavy interest and are a testament to the popularity of the program.

"It's a wonderful thing that people are trying to get coverage," Foster said. "And I've already started scheduling people into the month of November ... I'm booked."

Dr. Mike Morrisey, director of the UAB Lister Hill Center for Health Policy, said problems with the federal website have been reported across the country. Morrisey said the delays are not a significant problem yet, because residents still have until Dec. 15 to enroll if they want their coverage to start Jan. 1.

"My advice is just to wait a while ... wait until late November ... until the marketplace is effectively functioning," Morrisey said.

Sonja Smith, project coordinator for nonprofit Enroll Alabama, said Friday that her organization has had trouble using the federal website to enroll residents across the state. Enroll Alabama is a nonprofit established with federal money to help educate Alabamians about the marketplace. The nonprofit has several federally designated navigators stationed around the state, including one in Anniston, whose sole purpose is to help residents understand the marketplace and enroll in a health plan.

"There is still an issue ... there is still very high traffic," Smith said.

Smith said her organization has found that the best time to use the website is late at night. In lieu of that, the nonprofit is mainly enrolling residents with paper applications, she said.

"We've been really pushing the paper applications and helping them complete them and mail them," Smith said. "But it does make the enrollment process a little longer."

But like Foster, Smith sees the high traffic as a good sign about the marketplace.

"Interest is still pretty strong, despite all the kinks we've been having," Smith said.

For more information about the insurance marketplace or to acquire a paper enrollment application, call Debra Foster at 256-393-1028.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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