Health & Medicine

Californians fight tech troubles to buy health insurance

On a day marked by protracted computer glitches and phone-service delays, Californians began shopping in earnest Tuesday for private health insurance under the state’s version of the Affordable Care Act.

The state formally launched its health insurance marketplace more than 31/2 years after President Barack Obama signed into law his signature legislative achievement.

Officials warned about possible technical snafus, noting that the new system requires seamless communication between state and federal government data. The website launched at 8 a.m., and four minutes later state exchange officials reported enrolling the first applicant in health coverage.

By 9:30 a.m. the agency reported 6,500 calls to its service center. By noon, a recording on the customer service line warned of wait times exceeding 30 minutes. By 3 p.m., Covered California reported 17,000 calls and about 5 million page views on its website.

Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee, whose state was the first to establish an exchange, characterized the commencement of the program as a historic marker for the nation that signals health care as a right, not a privilege. At a launch event in Rancho Cordova, with a countdown clock and celebratory music, Lee described the nascent health program as nimble, innovative, self-sustaining and reflective of the state’s diversity.

“This is a day when for millions, dreams come true,” Lee said. “This is a day when people finally will have access to quality, affordable health care that cannot be denied and cannot be taken away.”

Access wasn’t easy for everyone on Tuesday.

A landing page on the Covered California website took several minutes to load. Clicking through to the next step brought additional delays.

Janice Worthen, 28, said she started her application about 1 p.m. and wasn’t halfway finished by about 3:15 p.m. She had to refresh each page six times to get the next one to load. At one point all the data she entered disappeared and she had to start from the beginning. Most of the help links did not work.

“To say my experience has been torturous would be an understatement,” said Worthen, an Alameda freelance writer.

Still, by 4 p.m. she had secured a plan. “I can say it’s extremely affordable for me,” she said. “I just really wanted to show my support for it by doing it today.”

Covered California had previously experienced computer and phone troubles while accepting applications to train health insurance agents.

Another challenge was confusion from some would-be customers that the federal government shutdown would impede their access to the online marketplace. Lee said the agency was undisturbed by the federal government’s problems, which he termed the “brouhaha that is happening in Washington.”

“While Washington is talking about shutdown; we’re talking about startup,” Lee said.

“Our success isn’t about Washington. It’s not about Sacramento,” he added. “It’s about what happens in East L.A. It’s about what happens in Oakland. About what happens in Eureka. In Lincoln. In Fresno. And what happens in county offices and clinics across the state.”

In Sacramento, Analyn Lara said she plans to enroll because she does not receive health insurance through her part-time job with the city of West Sacramento. On a recent day at work, the 23-year-old Sacramento City College student was playing with a group of children when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee.

The injury was a wake-up call, Lara said, because if the injury hadn’t been work-related she would have had to pay the hospital bill out of her own pocket.

Now Lara, who has been without health coverage for five years, is motivated by another factor: Noncompliance in the first year would cost her $95. That increases significantly in later years.

Nearly everyone under the law must obtain health insuranceat the beginning or pay the penalty.

“I expect to sign up very soon,” said Lara, who is studying to become a social worker.

Covered California has been scrambling to get the word out and make more services available to online shoppers. The number of new customers is not expected to be known until Nov. 15 because of the time it takes to process applications, a spokeswoman said.

Officials acknowledged that some features of the website, including the ability for small businesses to obtain coverage, would not be available for about six weeks. But beginning Tuesday, businesses could still compare prices and obtain quotes.

As the state exchange held press events across the state, Gov. Jerry Brown announced he had signed several bills to implement the health law and expand coverage for the poor.

Health experts have long identified California as a key test for the changes given its size, diversity and the high number of uninsured residents. The exchange hopes to reach about 5.3 million of the state’s 7 million uninsured. Last week, the Kaiser Family Foundation said it was embarking on a two-year research project of 2,000 uninsured Californians and the effects of the health law.

Outreach efforts thus far have relied heavily on grass-roots efforts by labor unions. Yvonne Walker, whose Service Employees International Union Local 1000 represents about half the state’s workforce of 180,000, said the law amounted to “good government.”

The new options extend not only to her members and their nonunion counterparts but also to her family, Walker said.

“My daughter is 33. For the first time, she is going to have health insurance coverage since she was an adult,” Walker said. “And I’ve got to tell you it just makes me kind of emotional just thinking about it.”

California this year unveiled lower-than-expected insurance rates, giving many potential customers time to examine the law’s effects on their finances. The state’s 19 geographic regions have, on average, five health plans from which consumers may choose. Rates vary based on age, region, household size and coverage. Subsidies are available for individuals earning up to $46,000 and for families with incomes up to $94,200.

Sean Knox, a freelance software engineer in San Francisco who has Type 1 diabetes, said the top-of-the-line “platinum” plan would be comparable to or possibly even cheaper than his current COBRA coverage. He tried to sign up Tuesday, but “I got 10 minutes into it and the website crashed.”

“I’m going to try again tomorrow – kind of like buying concert tickets,” said Knox, 32.

Benjamin Katz, a 38-year-old technology entrepreneur from San Diego, said he and his wife also are likely to seek coverage through the exchange. Katz said they expect to stay with their current provider, and the costs under the exchange “are looking much, much lower.”

“In an early startup, health care costs are a huge percentage of overhead,” he said.

Nisha Dutye, 50, of Sacramento, said she was preparing to help enroll her 32-year-old unemployed son, who was injured in an automobile accident.

“I’ve always been supportive of the health care law,” she said. “And he could use the help.”