published Friday, October 4th, 2013

Chattanooga area man persists through glitches, becomes among 1st to sign up for Obamacare

Local and national coverage

It was 3 a.m. before Chad Henderson made it through the online gauntlet of website crashes, error windows and hours of frozen screens. But at last, a Web page flickered and Henderson was facing his prize: The online application to apply for health insurance for his father and himself for the first time in 14 years.

Later that day on Oct. 1, the 21-year-old from Flintstone, Ga., fired off a Tweet: "Enrolled in #Obamacare just now! Looking forward to having affordable health care for the first time!" and attached several local news outlets onto the message.

He had heard reports that no one had been able to sign up for the new Affordable Care Act insurance plans, which went live that day.

Within hours, his phone blew up. Presidential advisers had retweeted his message, and reporters wanted his phone number. Enroll America, a national nonprofit organization promoting the law's new insurance options, asked to publicize his story.

On Thursday, Henderson juggled interviews with the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Politico and other national and local news outlets.

Henderson and his 58-year-old father are among what appears to be just a handful of Americans who have managed to get past long wait times and website glitches and actually purchase a health insurance plan through HealthCare.gov, the federal insurance marketplace.

Media outlets having a hard time finding people who have actually enrolled on the new plans seized on Henderson's story.

"I'm honored, and I'm happy that I could help out with the cause. But I do feel tired," Henderson said of the unexpected spotlight. "I don't really want my phone ringing off the hook."

The enrollment process is especially gummed up in states where the federal government is running the marketplaces, like Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama.

Federal officials say they are working to fix the problems -- which they attribute to a high volume of traffic.

Critics contend that the problems speak to instability in the law's implementation.

The new system's success hinges on close cooperation of state and federal systems, along with private contractors.

The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society, which is among several agencies guiding locals through enrollment, said the glitches are also affecting counselors' training sites.

"Overall, all of the online resources and systems are experiencing technical challenges which I attribute to heavy demand," said Rae Young Bond, executive director of the society.

American Exchange, a Chattanooga-based company specializing in the federal marketplace, said Thursday it finally was starting to enroll people on the site -- though it has meant devoting one employee to logging computers into the site and waiting sometimes hours to be admitted.

"We still have glitches, but we're able to power through," said Vice President David Yoder, who estimates that the company has enrolled about 100 people so far.

Others have had no such luck. Muriel Hassell, 29, has spent hours trying to get through the site's blockages to shop for insurance for her family.

  • photo
    In this screen grab image, the page asking visitors to stay on during the log in process of the Health Care Marketplace website. The pressure is on for the federal government and states running their own health insurance exchanges to get the systems up and running after overloaded websites and jammed phone lines frustrated consumers for a second day as they tried to sign up for coverage using the new marketplaces.

"I have gotten every single error message possible," she said.

But Hassell, who has been eager to get coverage so she can have her gall bladder removed, has not given up.

"At some point I have to get on. I may take a break till this weekend," she said Thursday.

Henderson, a Ridgeland High graduate, has been uninsured since he was in grade school. He only goes to the doctor when he is very ill, and he can't remember a time when his father, a single parent who has always been uninsured, ever saw a physician.

Henderson has been a fan of Obama's signature health care law since it was passed. Among other things, it did away with lifetime caps on health insurance, meaning his cousin born with half a heart was able to get treatment her parents thought they would no longer be able to afford.

He has volunteered with a local chapter of Organized for Action, a national advocacy group that promote's Obama's legislative agenda. His decision to sign up early for Obamacare was partially motivated by his desire to prove that it worked, he said.

"When the clock struck midnight I was on there," he said.

Once in the site, he spent about 45 minutes comparing plans on a format that was "kind of like the Verizon site," he said.

He and his dad ended up selecting a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia "bronze" plan -- one of the cheapest.

Because Henderson is a college student at Chattanooga State Community College and makes less than $10,000 a year at the child care center where he teaches part time, he could have qualified for Medicaid.

  • photo
    Chad Henderson talks Thursday about his Internet experience applying insurance through the Affordable Care Act website.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

That isn't an option because Georgia -- along with Tennessee and Alabama -- has opted not to expand its Medicaid program.

And because his income is actually too low for him to qualify for tax subsidies, Henderson will have to pay the full premium--between $175 and $200 per month.

It's not ideal, "but it fits in my budget," he said.

His father, who has run a shaved ice stand for more than a decade, was able to qualify for subsidies.

After Henderson tweeted that he signed up for Obamacare, he received praise as well as attacks. Critics emerged online, saying that he could have gotten a cheaper plan before Obamacare.

"My Twitter [account] blew up with people saying I'm a socialist baby-killer," he said. "Most people's view is strictly political. I don't think the people who are against [the law] have heard the stories from real people who aren't insured."

Henderson did say he wishes the plans covered more, like dental and vision care.

Bert Kelly, spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, said the company cannot confirm at this point how many people have signed up for its plans on HealthCare.gov.

"We will get a notification from [the federal government] that someone has enrolled," he said. "But none of the states have seen that information yet. ... Activity on our websites has increased dramatically, but we don't have any hard numbers."

People have until Dec. 15 to sign up for plans that take effect Jan. 1, and they can enroll as late as March 31.

While Henderson waits for January, he plans to do research on the doctors he may be able to see at that point.

"I am planning to take advantage of it," he said, even though he considers himself healthy.

"Knowing I'll have it in a few months -- it's a relief."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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

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