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Health insurance markets open; site slow to respond

A woman looks HealthCare.gov insurance exchange internet site October 1 2013 WashingtDC. US President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act or

A woman looks at the HealthCare.gov insurance exchange internet site October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. US President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it is commonly called, passed in March 2010, went into effect Tuesday at 8am EST. Heavy Internet traffic and system problems plagued the launch of the new health insurance exchanges Tuesday morning. Consumers attempting to log on were met with an error message early Tuesday due to an overload of Internet traffic. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIERKAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

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Updated: November 3, 2013 6:18AM



More than 70,000 unique visitors made their way to the Get Covered Illinois online marketplace Tuesday to find out about new options for health insurance in the state, but many had trouble actually viewing how much these insurance rates would cost.

It was the first date Illinoisans — and millions of other Americans — could peruse online health care marketplaces at the core of President Barack Obama’s health care reforms.

Get Covered Illnois is the gateway website that was supposed to be the place where the uninsured could see if they qualified for Medicaid or one of the new options for health insurance in the online marketplace. It was also the first date they could enroll for a new plan that wasn’t previously available.

Both the expansion of Medicaid and the creation of online marketplace, starting Oct. 1, were two pieces of the Affordable Care Act – more informally known as ‘Obamacare’ – that are supposed to greatly diminish the number of uninsured Americans.

The shutdown of the federal government will have no immediate effect on the insurance marketplaces that are the backbone of the law, because they operate with money that isn’t subject to the annual budget wrangling in Washington.

The Obama administration hopes to sign up 7 million people during the first year and aims to eventually sign up at least half of the nearly 50 million uninsured Americans through an expansion of Medicaid or government-subsidized plans.

In Illinois, 1.6 million people are uninsured.

But efforts early Tuesday to access the online marketplace in Illinois prompted a message saying traffic to the site was heavy. The website churned slowly to the login page, but eventually got there.

Still, the Sun-Times and many consumers weren’t able to view a full list of the 165 plans that was supposed to be made available for Illinois on the online marketplace. The Sun-Times obtained more examples of the Illinois health plans from the U.S. Deparment of Health and Human Services, at www.healthcare.gov/health-plan-information.

The state government said the landing website, www.getcoveredillinois.gov — the first stop before the site redirects visitors to the Medicaid website or a federal website where visitors can find information about their homestate’s marketplace — had few problems and got 65,043 unique visitors at www.getcoveredillinois.gov.

And 6,157 people as of 9:30 a.m. actually went through the process of answering questions such as how much they made a month, so the website could determine whether they should be directed to Medicaid website or go the federal website with the online marketplace.

But the federal website with the online marketplaces for Illinois and other states prompted a message saying traffic to the site was too heavy to access, as of early Tuesday evening.

Many states reported similar problems.

Federal officials told the Associated Press they were working to address the website problems as quickly as possible. People contacting the federal call center also reported long wait times.

Those who were sent to the Medicaid website, though, did not have significant issues. The state received more than 4,000 online applications submitted there.

Gov. Pat Quinn made a speech earlier in the day, saying Tuesday was a big day for the uninsured.

“Today we are launching a new state of health care for more than one million of our uninsured relatives, loved ones, friends and neighbors,” Quinn said. “While there may be bumps along the way, this is a turning point in our nation and the state as we strive to provide decent health care to all.”

Many have noted that Oct. 1 is just the start date and that use of the website in Illinois and other states will likely build over time.

“You don’t walk into a car lot and buy the first car that you see,” said Jim Duffett, Executive Director of Campaign for Better Health Care. “So even for more important purchases like health insurance, we definitely expect people to take some time and think carefully and weigh their option.”

For that reason, the fact that few so-called navigators were actually out Tuesday to help the public enroll the first day did not appear to be a big deal, the Sun-Times found. The trained navigators or “in-person counselors” are available to walk the uninsured through the process.

To find out more, state officials recommended that people interested in getting some help with the marketplace call ahead to their local community organization designated as a Get Covered Illinois partner and schedule in advance an appointment with a navigator. Illinois residents can find a list of partner organizations by visiting www.getcoveredillinois.gov, the state said.

Consumers have until March 31, 2014 to enroll on the marketplace, though they must enroll by Dec. 15 to get service to start on Jan. 1, 2014. People applying for Medicaid can enroll any time.

Those interested in learning more can call the Help Desk to get information at (866) 311-1119, a toll-free number, if they have any questions. The call center will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the state government said.

The federal government also has a call center at (800) 318-2596 and a website at healthcare.gov.

Beginning January 1, 2014, all Americans will be required to get health insurance or pay a fine. Anyone who doesn’t buy insurance will face a $95 penalty when they file their tax returns in 2015. The penalty will continue to increase each year according to cost-of-living increases.

Contributing: Associated Press

mjthomas@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MonifaThomas1



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