Consumers shop health marketplace, warts and all

Consumers shop health marketplace, warts and all

October 1st, 2013 by Kate Harrison Belz in Local - Breaking News

Sherry Kitts, right, speaks as Loretta Moore, center, and Serena Hester listen during a meeting to discuss the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday at the Southside Community Health Center.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Muriel Hassell skipped breakfast Tuesday morning and headed straight for her computer.

She had been counting down the days to Oct. 1.

Hassell is a working mother with four daughters. For months now, she has needed to have her gall bladder removed, but has put off the procedure because neither her nor her partner's job offers health insurance, and all the plans she has researched are out of the family's price range.

But Hassell is hopeful that she'll soon be able to find her family a plan on the new Health Insurance Marketplace, the backbone of the Affordable Care Act, which went live Tuesday.

But when Hassell logged onto the main website for the online marketplace, HealthCare.gov, she was greeted by an "error" pop-up window that told her the site couldn't be accessed because it was overloaded with people.

"I just thought, 'Ah, no!' I was so ready to just start looking at the prices," she said. "I started searching online to see if there were glitches, or if it was just me."

It wasn't just her. The debut of the marketplace - which occurred in spite of the government shutdown - went ahead amid heavy technical problems on websites and call centers across the nation.

Opponents of the law said Tuesday that the technical problems with sign-ups were indicative of the shakiness of the entire law's infrastructure. But supporters said the overwhelming traffic was normal and showed just how popular the law is.

Another hold-up has been at local health and community centers, where the guides meant to give locals face-to-face help through the process have yet to be approved by Tennessee and Georgia regulators.

But the lags haven't stymied interest.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, which is offering the most plans on Tennessee's marketplace, reported "many calls" and "a lot of traffic" on its website Tuesday.

At American Exchange, a Chattanooga-based health insurance broker that specializes in the new marketplace, the call volume was "crazy," Vice President David Yoder said.

The company was able to successfully enroll only one person before the government website's problems left representatives resorting to jotting down the potential customers' information on paper and promising follow-up.

"We're just having a hard time getting in and getting things done. But it's what we expected for today," Yoder said.

The company has seen two main types of callers, he explained. Those with pre-existing conditions anxious to get in the system, and those with a more political bent.

"There are people who just wanted to get enrolled early to show that it will be successful," Yoder said.

Hassell has had many political discussions about health insurance since she moved to Northern Alabama from Massachusetts, where she had "Romneycare" - a state-based insurance program on which parts of Obamacare were modeled.

"I was so against it at first," said Hassell. "I'm not a freeloader. I don't believe in entitlements."

But she ended up getting a plan through the state, which covered her whole family. She had to pay for it, but it was affordable - unlike plans she has shopped for in the tri-state region.

"I think people who are so against [the law] are scared," she said. "It's so new and no one knows what to expect. I get that. But I wish people weren't so scared."

Across town at the Southside Community Health Centers, people packed into a room decked with red, white and blue balloons for an Affordable Care Act "kickoff" planned to acquaint locals with the law.

"This is an exciting time. It's not our job to debate this ... our job is to be out in the communities to help everyone we can help," said Katherlyn Geter, who is overseeing Erlanger Health System's enrollment outreach through its community health centers.

Some attending the session, like Serena Hester, 49, were between jobs and wanted to see what they could qualify for.

Hester, who previously worked for a temp agency, can't afford to not be insured because of the medications she is on. But she wants something that will be affordable and steady.

"I'm planning to call that government hotline and not hang up until I get all of the options explained to me," she said.

Others, like 52-year-old Kathleen McCarthy, wanted to know how plans compared. McCarthy already has insurance through her employer, but wants information about what is available on the marketplace after her premiums jumped 25 percent this year.

"I hoped they'd go down with the new law, but they only went up," said McCarthy, who lives north of Red Bank. "Right now I just need to compare what I already have with what's available on the marketplace."

Rae Bond, director of the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga - which is assisting with enrollment efforts - said plans on the marketplace are "highly tailored" when it comes to tax subsidies and cost-sharing, so people will have different answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

They have plenty of time to do that, with six months of open enrollment, Bond said.

But some, like Hassell, don't want to wait six months. Later in the day, she tried again to log into the government site several times - with no luck.

"I'm going to give it a few hours," she said. "I'll try again."