“Today is the first day! Open enrollment! Yay!”
That was a cheer from Valerie Myers, a representative from Independence Blue Cross, the region’s largest insurer, as she handed out brochures to people at Philadelphia’s bustling Suburban Station Tuesday. Many commuters were puzzled by her excitement.
“It’s the so-called Obamacare that comes out today? Or yesterday?” said 21-year-old Justin Davis, en route to work.
Myers was, in fact, referring to the health care marketplaces that opened in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. Tuesday. A mainstay of the Affordable Care Act, it’s intended as an online site where people can compare and shop for health plans. Independence Blue Cross, one of the main insurers offering marketplace plans in Philadelphia, has been an aggressive promoter.
“This is not explained very well, the average person will never get it,” said Nancy Barrett, who stopped to get some Blue Cross information for her uninsured daughter.
Reactions from other busy commuters ranged from unfazed to uncaring.
“I don’t see that I need it [insurance] at this time,” said 45-year-old William Addison, a bartender sitting on a bench nearby. “Maybe when I get a better job, I could probably think about it at that time.”
While Myers continued passing out brochures, Kristie Glazer sat in front of her computer in South Philadelphia, eagerly preparing to log on to www.healthcare.gov to see what options might be available to her and her husband. The time was about 8 a.m. when the site was scheduled to go up.
“I’m on the website, I’m hitting apply now,” Glazer said. The page then refreshed with this message, which she relayed: “The system is down at the moment and working to resolve it as soon as possible and to please try again later.”
Glazer wasn’t alone, with the site jamming for many people.
Obama administration officials remained doggedly optimistic about opening day of the Affordable Care Act insurance marketplaces.
“I think that’s pointing to the volume and the excitement,” said Nancy O’Connor, regional administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
For those unable to log in and shop, O’Connor said there’s a website to find local, in-person help.
During an afternoon phone call, CMS administrator Marilyn Tavenner said she also heard reports that people had trouble logging in and creating accounts.
Despite the reports of glitches and delays, she urged reporters not to lose site of the historic nature of the feat.
The administration “added capacity and made some adjustments” throughout the day, she said.
Federal health officials say website traffic tripled for the healthcare.gov site. But those numbers are only for the general portal — not a count of the people who actually logged on and applied for health coverage.
Officials say there were some successes on Day One, but they are not ready to release enrollment numbers by state.
Agencies focused on assisting people in signing up had mixed responses to the glitches, but weren’t surprised.
Clinic plows ahead
The computer setback didn’t hold back application assistants at Rising Sun Health Center in North Philadelphia.
“There were some slowdowns, which was expected. So what we did is we printed out the paper versions of the enrollment forms,” said Melissa Fox, director of health services at Rising Sun and its partner clinics. “So we’re ready. Whoever comes in, we can still get them enrolled and have their applications filled out.”
The paper application, however, involves more steps, including a one- to two-week waiting period, after which applicants receive information about plans and prices by mail. Elizabeth Rosario, an application assistant, had hoped that by 10 a.m. she could help people log onto the site. But she had no such luck.
“We went through the whole step of creating user name and password and at the confirmation process … boom. Shut us down,” she said, laughing. “We were like, I’m sorry, today is Oct. 1. Unfortunately the system is bombarded.”
The center, like many others throughout the country treating predominantly underinsured and uninsured patients, has been gearing up for this day, but has also been unsure whether many would show up to sign up.
“We had people lined up when we got here,” said Fox. By midafternoon, the center had reported helping 50 people complete applications.
Carmen Santiago stopped in to sign up and said she’s excited about the prospects of finally having affordable coverage.
“Because I have diabetes, it seems that insurance seems to go up, and we can’t afford to pay for it,” said Santiago. “I haven’t seen the doctor for a while … they want me to check on my diabetes, I haven’t gotten blood work in maybe three or four years.”
Editor’s Note: The audio postcard above features voices of reporter Elana Gordon, Valerie Myers, a representative from Independence Blue Cross, as well transit riders Allison Hines, Justin Davis, William Addison, Tina Snyder, Ben Balance and Nancy Barrett.
Disclosure: Independence Blue Cross supports WHYY.