Exchanges open with some sputters

By Don Davis

Minnesota’s health-insurance marketplace opened Tuesday afternoon with hiccups, but a massive federal computer-based system suffered more severe symptoms for other states’ residents.

Systems in most states were running by Tuesday night, although some users continued to report issues.

“We are very happy and pleased to be open,” MNsure Executive Director April Todd-Malmlov said Tuesday night.

Todd-Malmlov pushed a few keystrokes shortly after 3 p.m. and the system went online at mnsure.org, at one point serving 3,000 people at once. She said that during the first few hours, 100,000 people used the MNsure Web site, established for Minnesotans to compare and buy health insurance.

Computer problems stalled the opening of a new federally required web-based method to buy health insurance. And even into the evening there were reports of problems logging on to the site that serves 36 states, including all neighboring Minnesota.

In Minnesota, one computer server gave MNsure problems and kicked some users offline, Todd-Malmlov said. However, she added, that was quickly fixed.

“The system did not crash,” she said.

MNsure will be shut down from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily. Otherwise, Minnesotans may go on line or call (855) 366-7873 to obtain help via telephone or in person.

More than 500 Minnesotans set up MNsure accounts in the first hour the system was operational, but Todd-Malmlov could not say how many insurance policies were purchased.

“People are very happy today,” she said. “It has been a very jubilant atmosphere.”

Things were a bit different on the federal level, which was supposed to be working Tuesday morning.

“Please wait,” the federal Web page read into the evening. “We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we’re working to make your experience here better. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience!”

After several minutes, users generally were allowed to continue.

President Barack Obama said the federal site received more than 1 million visits before 7 a.m.

“We are going to be speeding things up in the next few hours to handle this demand that is more than anyone anticipated,” the president promised.

Obama said in comments on the White House steps that he long has warned there would be problems.

“Like every new law, every new product, there will be glitches,” he said.

Minnesota officials said Monday that not everything would be available Tuesday morning. They said they had to work on connecting Minnesota and federal computers before going live.

They suggested that American Indians wait a week before going online with MNsure because Indians are entitled to different policies than other Americans and not everything has been programmed into the computers for that difference.

They also said that people still are being trained to help Minnesotans and small-business owners navigate MNsure. They promised a directory of those aides will be available Wednesday.

The health exchange concept is a basic part of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. While the insurance policies may be compared and bought on line now, they do not take effect until Jan. 1.

Critics said that MNsure has not provided any assurances that public data is protected after a series of glitches in recent weeks, including a worker who mistakenly sent private information of hundreds of insurance brokers to an insurance agent.

“It has taken two years and $150 million just to get Obamacare in Minnesota off the ground, and on its first day MNsure continues to have more problems than solutions,” state Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said.

MNsure and federal officials said that a federal government shutdown would not affect the exchanges.

The rollout of the most ambitious U.S. social program in five decades had a rocky start.

The federally run exchange for consumers in 36 states began posting error messages soon after the system opened for enrollment at 7 a.m.

The administration had predicted hitches early on because of the challenge of building a massive technology infrastructure in a short time. The problems could last weeks. Even before Tuesday’s launch, officials last week announced delays for exchanges geared toward Spanish speakers and small businesses.

“It’s very significant for the political campaign but not for the enrollment campaign,” said Jon Kingsdale, the former head of the Massachusetts state health exchange, which opened in 2006 and became the model for Obamacare.

“I don’t know if it’s two weeks or five weeks, but I don’t think we’re talking just days,” Kingsdale said.

The exchanges, shopping places for people to find out whether they qualify for federal subsidies, will accept applications for the new plans until March 31. They are expected to sign up as many as 7 million Americans in their first year.

The websites will give many Americans their first glimpse of new subsidized health plans that are being offered to millions of the uninsured, in the most ambitious U.S. social program since Medicare was introduced in the 1960s.

The Affordable Care Act mandates that Americans obtain insurance or pay a fine. Provisions that have taken effect since the law was passed three years ago have already prompted changes in the way insurance companies and hospitals do business, as they prepare for an influx of new insured members.

“For years, the financial, physical or mental health of millions of Americans suffered because they couldn’t afford the care they or their family needed,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. “But thanks to the health care law, all of that is changing. Today’s launch begins a new day when health care coverage will be more accessible and affordable than ever before.”

Reuters news service contributed to this story.

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