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Few able to sign up for Obamacare in Wisconsin

Oct. 18, 2013
 

WASHINGTON — More than two weeks after opening, the website where people can sign up for coverage under the health care reform law is still a technical mess with few people able to log on or compare rates, much less buy insurance coverage.

Federal officials have so far refused to provide data showing just how few, but Wisconsin officials did their own survey and Insurance Commissioner Ted Nickel says fewer than 50 people were able to sign up through healthcare.gov during the first week.

By comparison, in Minnesota, which is not relying on the federal website, some 5,500 people applied for coverage through its state website during the first two weeks, officials there said.

Nickel said problems with the federal site could jeopardize efforts in Wisconsin to shift 95,000 people off Medicaid and help the estimated 500,000 uninsured in the state get covered by the Dec. 15 deadline to sign up for coverage starting Jan. 1.

“We need the exchange to work,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We’d been promised that (it) would be up and running on Oct. 1 and running well. And then, here we sit.”

Read more about the Affordable Care Act.

Nickel, who was in Washington to share insights on Obamacare implementation at a health insurance conference, said his office called the 13 insurance carriers offering plans to Wisconsinites in the federal marketplace to get the numbers so he cautioned the survey was far from scientific.

The numbers also do not show how many people tried to log in and sign up but were stymied by technical issues. Only federal officials would be able to determine that, and so far, they say they don’t know.

A poll conducted by United Sample Inc. found that among 832 people who attempted to log in, 38 percent received an error message, 50 percent were asked to try again later, 25 percent were unable to create an account, 31 percent were told the system was down. Only 19 percent had no problems.

The White House said Wednesday that 17 million people had visited the site so far and the federal call center had fielded 560,000 calls. But Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to say how many were able to sign up for coverage.

“We’ve said repeatedly ... that we will release enrollment figures monthly,” he said. “So I would expect the first figures to come out in mid-November.”

Obama administration officials have been under fire for what they called “glitches” with the website that they initially blamed on the sheer volume of people trying to log in. They have since admitted there are also problems with the site itself and say they are working around the clock to fix them.

But so far, anecdotal reports suggest little progress has been made. For days after the website officially opened Oct. 1, attempts to log in were thwarted by problems with a page requesting answers to security questions. Then rampant error messages such as “The system is unavailable” were reported.

And when people successfully created accounts on the site, they couldn’t log in to view rates or purchase insurance. As of Thursday afternoon, attempts by this reporter were greeted by a blank screen.

The website was intended to be the key conduit for implementing the centerpiece of the health care reform law, and federal documents show the government awarded contracts worth nearly $300 million so far to build it. The main contractor is a Canadian company called CGI Federal.

Technical experts say the site was built using 10-year-old technology. It may require constant fixes and updates for the next six months and eventually an overhaul of the entire system.

“The application could be fundamentally flawed,” said Jeff Kim, president of CDNetworks, a content-delivery network. “They may be using 1990s technology in 2.0 world.”

Nickel said that while there has been extensive consumer frustration so far, state officials in Wisconsin are doing their best to find a work-around.

“Not having the exchange up and running has been difficult,” he said. “We’re gearing up for paper in case it’s necessary.”

Kelly Kennedy of USA Today contributed to this report. Contact dslack@usatoday.com. Follow @donovanslack.

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