Insurance marketplaces open to glitches, high interest

Oct. 01, 2013 @ 07:21 PM

On the opening day of the health insurance marketplaces on Tuesday, insurance agents and others trying to get people signed up for health plans in Durham encountered glitches with the online system.

But Charles Galt, an insurance professional who was manning a kiosk at Northgate Mall for the Chapel Hill-based health insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, was upbeat nonetheless.

“If we have some problems with the health care exchange system in the beginning, that’s not going to stop us from helping people with their questions and assisting them as they go forward,” Galt said.

The exchange launched Tuesday as part of President Obama's health care overhaul. The online store is a place where individuals can buy federally approved health care plans. Next year, federal law will require people to have insurance or face a penalty.

To help individuals pay for coverage, federal subsidies in the form of tax credits will be available for people within a certain range of the federal poverty limit.

Ryan Vulcan, a spokeswoman for the insurer, said Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina officials didn’t expect to see a flood of people rushing to buy insurance Tuesday.

Blue Cross is one of two insurers selling plans on the federally operated insurance exchange. The other is Coventry Health Care of the Carolinas, which is now part of Aetna Inc.

However, Lew Borman, a spokesman for the insurer, said that as of Tuesday morning, the insurer got 1,000 requests for rate quotes between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., the amount it typically gets in a full day.

Borman said call volume was high and there was lots of interest from people getting quotes for health plan rates as well as inquiring about subsidies.

“We are up and running – some technical glitches reported on the federal side,” he said in an email.

By Tuesday afternoon, Galt said he expected approximately six of about 50 people that he said he’d encountered at the kiosk were good candidates for the insurer’s health plans.

The kiosk was running when the mall opened at 10 a.m. The insurer launched the kiosk and a smattering of other stores in the state to get people face-to-face information about the plans it’s selling on the exchange. Tablet computers were available to allow people to access information.

Galt said one of those six was a woman who has insurance through her employer, but pays about $500 per month. Under the health care overhaul, he believes she’d be eligible for a subsidy to buy a plan through the exchange.

But he said the log-on through the website wasn’t working for him Tuesday.

According to an email from a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, there were five times more users on the marketplace website Tuesday morning than there ever has been on the Medicare.gov website at one time.

The website was reportedly functioning Tuesday and its speed was improving over time, but slowed by higher-than-expected volumes of users.

The Lincoln Community Health Center, a medical facility in Durham that serves many uninsured people, had coordinators working Tuesday in the lobby to educate people about the health plans being sold on the exchange in North Carolina.

They had computer stations and workers who could help people sign up for health plans. But before 10 a.m., enrollment coordinators at Lincoln said they saw at least two people interested in signing up, but they couldn’t get on the website to access the plan and subsidy information.

“We’re finding that people are eager to get this information,” said Ricardo Correa, outreach enrollment coordinator for the center, who started at 8 a.m. Tuesday talking to people about the health insurance exchange from the clinic’s lobby. “They’ve heard it’s finally here.”

Correa said the health center plans other events to help people enroll. Center workers plan to work with nonprofit groups and to connect with churches and businesses to spread the word about the exchange. He said people can come to the center to use its computers to enroll. Six people working for the center can help with applications.

“There’s a lot of good things to celebrate,” Correa said. “We’re definitely making history.”