Locals see improvement in federal insurance website
by Patrick McCreless
Dec 05, 2013 | 2789 views |  0 comments | 78 78 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Debra Foster, an application counselor at Quality of Life Health Services, on Wednesday helps someone navigate the health exchange website created by the Affordable Care Act.  Photo by Bill Wilson.
Debra Foster, an application counselor at Quality of Life Health Services, on Wednesday helps someone navigate the health exchange website created by the Affordable Care Act. Photo by Bill Wilson.
Jeff Nelson sees it nearly every day when trying to show residents how to enroll online for health insurance, from glitches to slow Internet speeds and website freezes.

Or he did.

Since enrollment began Oct. 1 for Alabama's federally managed insurance marketplace, part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, Nelson has tried helping residents understand their options through his role as Anniston's federal "navigator." Since it went live however, the website dedicated to enrolling Americans has been maligned with technical problems. However, over the weekend the federal government upgraded the website considerably — enough to handle 50,000 users at once, federal officials say. So far, Nelson and his counterparts in the area say they have not had problems with the site since, meaning they'll be able to help more residents search for affordable health care.

The insurance marketplace 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 for those who have enrolled by Dec. 23.

Though residents can enroll for the insurance by mail, the federal government has pushed its website, Healthcare.gov, as the main way to navigate the marketplace. Up until this week though, there were few times Nelson did not face issues with the site.

"But now there are many improvements," Nelson said.

Nelson said a big improvement is the ability to edit an insurance application.

"Before, if you wanted to make major changes to it, it was almost impossible to do it," Nelson said. "You basically had to call someone to do it."

The website had many glitches, such as not adding family members to a plan when applicants clicked on the option to do so. Many times, applications would freeze halfway through completion, forcing people to start over, Nelson said.

"But now I have not experienced any of that at all," Nelson said.

Still, despite the online issues, Nelson has managed to help more than 100 people understand their insurance options, either with the website or through the paper application process, he said.

Sonja Smith, project coordinator for the nonprofit Enroll Alabama, said navigators across the state have experienced similar improvements. Enroll Alabama was established with federal money to help educate Alabamians about the marketplace. Besides Nelson, the nonprofit has several federally designated navigators stationed around the state, whose sole purpose is to help residents understand the marketplace, but not to tell them which insurance plan to buy.

Smith said a major improvement to the site is in how it functions under heavy use. Before the recent upgrades, it was constantly overloaded by heavy traffic, she said. The website now constantly refreshes when users first sign in and notifies them when it is ready to handle more people. Previously, users would just start the enrollment process, only to see their applications slow to a crawl because too many people were on the site at once.

"Now it self-regulates its own capacity," Smith said. "It definitely is working ... I'm hoping it’s always smoother from here on out."

Debra Foster, a federally funded application counselor based in Anniston who has more training than a standard navigator, said she has noticed considerable improvement in the website.

"I've had several calls this morning from people who I've been working with for the last 20 days, saying their information is getting through," Foster said Wednesday. "The system is now responding and giving persons options."

Foster, who has assisted more than 200 people since she started in October, said while the website's problems are frustrating, they are due in part to the significant need for health care across the country.

"The problem is there are thousands of people who do not have health care coverage," Foster said. "The system is just overloaded."

Dr. Mike Morrisey, director of the UAB Lister Hill Center for Health Policy, said while public opinion has soured on the insurance marketplace due to the website's problems, it’s still worth the government's time to institute improvements.

"I think every step forward is still a step forward," Morrisey said.

However, Morrisey noted there was some concern among critics of the site that while improvements have been made to the website for consumers, there are still technical problems for insurers.

"There are some problems on the back end where they transfer information to the insurers," Morrisey said. “There may be some concern of ‘am I enrolling with who I think I am?’”

Koko Mackin, spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, which is offering plans in the state marketplace, said the insurer has experienced some technical issues with the website.

“When we identify any errors in the data transferred to us, we are notifying the federal government and are working with them to help resolve any technical issues,” Mackin said.

Mackin added that the technical problems with the site will not impact Blue Cross' coverage deadlines.

"We will be ready to provide coverage beginning Jan. 1 for those who have enrolled by Dec. 23 through the federal marketplace," she said.

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

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