Technical problems marred Tuesday’s opening of the federal insurance exchange for Wyoming, as visitors flooded the online marketplace looking for health coverage.
Consumers encountered glitches and delays on the marketplace’s first day of operation. Even creating an account for the website where consumers can shop for insurance proved difficult.
“The system is just overloaded,” Wyoming Insurance Commissioner Tom Hirsig said. “Nobody can go in and see the plans.”
The exchange is a major piece of the Affordable Care Act, the health reform law passed three years ago by Congress. Experts predict millions of Americans will eventually use the marketplace, including many people who can’t afford insurance or have been denied coverage in the past because of pre-existing medical conditions.
Wyoming’s marketplace started with some of the highest premiums in the nation, according to a federal report released last week. However, many residents who qualify for income-based subsidies will pay similar premiums to those in other states. The price breaks won’t be available to the rich or the very poor.
Exchange designers intend it as a place where consumers and small businesses can easily compare health plans from private insurance companies. But
as enrollment opened, visitors experienced trouble simply accessing the website.
Officials expected difficulties, given the size and complexity of the new system, which must calculate whether consumers are eligible for tax credits or Medicaid coverage.
“You have to be sympathetic to the fact that it’s a huge deal and everybody is trying to get in there,” Hirsig said.
Wyoming and 35 other states declined to open their own marketplaces. The federal government is operating a marketplace on their behalf.
Most consumers will access the exchange via the federal website healthcare.gov. Roughly 16 hours after its opening, the site had already attracted 2.8 million visitors across the country, said Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
In a conference call with reporters, Tavenner confirmed people have begun enrolling in plans through the federal exchange. She declined to say how many people actually signed up for insurance.
Although Tuesday marked the start of enrollment for the marketplace, coverage won’t begin until Jan. 1. That gives consumers plenty of time to make a decision, said Tracy Brosius, one of the “navigators” tasked with informing the public about the new program.
“There is no rush, and they need to make a good, solid choice because it is a big decision,” she said.
Cheyenne Regional Medical Center is leading a statewide effort to inform people about the exchange. The hospital’s Wyoming Institute of Population Health is planning a series of events to help people enroll.
The navigators face a stiff challenge. A poll taken last month showed three quarters of uninsured Americans didn’t even know when the marketplace would open.
The public is more familiar with another part of the health law that will require most Americans to possess health insurance beginning Jan. 1. Those who don’t will face penalties that start small but quickly escalate.
Two companies — WINhealth and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wyoming — are selling Wyoming plans through the marketplace. Speaking Tuesday afternoon, officials from both companies said they didn’t know yet how many people had bought plans through the exchange.
Blue Cross representative Wendy Curran said company officials aren’t sure how many customers will use the exchange, but she expects interest to increase as January approaches.
“How it unfolds, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess,” she said.
WINhealth President Stephen Goldstone said his business had received many phone calls from consumers interested in the marketplace. He’d heard people were having trouble accessing the marketplace, but said he was confident the issues will be resolved before January.
“It’s an incredibly complex system and it’s going to take a while to work through the glitches and stress test it,” he said.
The company expects it will eventually gain many customers through the exchange. An estimated 89,000 uninsured people live in Wyoming.
“Those people continue to get health care, whether they can pay for it or not, which means all of us are paying a hidden cost,” he said. “So the more people we get insured in the state, I think we all benefit.”