published Monday, October 14th, 2013

Obamacare frustration has not gone away

Poll
Has the launch of Obamacare gone well?

Locals hoping to buy health insurance on the newly created online marketplace say they remain in a "holding pattern" as they wait for chronic glitches to be fixed in the government site nearly two weeks after it was launched.

Kathleen McCarthy, a Red Bank-area resident wanting to compare insurance prices on the exchange with her current employer plan, has been foiled repeatedly over the past two weeks by error messages and frozen screens.

"I did finally get online and got an account set up, but then when I got back in there later it wouldn't let me back in," she said, laughing. "I haven't submitted my application. I haven't seen any price comparisons."

Even the local government-funded navigators hired to assist people in the signup process have had trouble accessing the site, which is a feature of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

"I get on the site every day, and I just keep hitting roadblocks," said Katherlyn Geter, the navigator with Erlanger Health System's enrollment program. "I am not getting anywhere. It's very frustrating."

In a poll released Thursday by The Associated Press, 40 percent of Americans said the launch of the insurance markets hasn't gone well, and just 7 percent said the launch had gone "very well" or "somewhat well."

Thirty-six states, including Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, are using the federal exchange site.

The Obama administration has released virtually no data about enrollment figures to gauge whether the website's first weeks have been a success or flop.

The administration has attributed the glitches to high demand, not software or design issues. But independent experts said it's probably a combination of all those factors, the AP reported.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. -- the senior Republican on the Senate Health Committee -- sent an open letter Thursday to U.S. secretary of health and human services, asking what was behind the glitches, whether the administration was aware of the problems when it launched the site and whether Americans who started but were unable to finish the process should face a tax penalty.

Ken Broyles, a Fort Oglethorpe insurance broker, plans to help clients purchase plans off the exchange. But he has so far avoided HealthCare.gov altogether.

"The water is too muddy right now," said Broyles. "We don't want to get in and guide somebody until we really get a good feel for it."

Broyles said many brokers have complained about the site in the insurance forums he participates in, but said that there were a number of reports of success.

But for navigator's offices like Erlanger's, the website is not the only obstacle. Geter and her staff are waiting on the state and federal certification to allow them to proceed with signups. Geter hopes that process will be finalized in a couple of weeks.

North Georgia's main enrollment assistance sites -- Primary Care Health Centers in Trenton, Rossville and Tunnel Hill -- are on the cusp of receiving a state license after a long application process, said navigator Amy Buffington.

"I have a list of people who have just been waiting on our licensing to come sign up," she said.

Geter's staff also has a list of about 30 people they plan to follow up with once their agency is approved. Most are uninsured and unemployed, she said.

"We're in a holding pattern, but we're trying to educate people," she said. "We don't want people to get discouraged with the site not working."

Despite the bumpy rollout, the AP's poll shows that many Americans -- potentially 20 million people or more -- are giving the system a try. But of those who have tried, only about 1 in 10 succeeded in buying insurance, the poll found.

McCarthy said she will try the site over the coming weeks, and if that doesn't work she will directly call the insurance companies that operate on the exchange.

Companies offering exchange plans in the Chattanooga area are BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and Cigna. In North Georgia, it's Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia and Alliant Health.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee will soon launch its own enrollment site, said Mary Danielson, spokeswoman for the company -- which is the only insurer covering all of Tennessee's counties.

There consumers can sign up for plans directly through the company instead of going through the government portal.

Still, anyone hoping to apply for government subsidies for insurance will still need to complete the application on HealthCare.gov.

The decision to create a BlueCross-specific "marketplace" site has long been part of the company's plan and isn't tied to the government's website problems, said Danielson.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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