By Elise Viebeck - 10/02/13 12:25 AM EDT
Americans rushed to visit the new Obama-Care insurance exchanges Tuesday only to find themselves locked out as the online enrollment system sputtered.
The grand opening was celebrated with fanfare by the law’s supporters, but it generated frustration among millions of people who tried to get a first look at their coverage options.
Administration officials acknowledged technical problems, but insisted they were a result of heavier-than-expected Web traffic.
“We’re thrilled that so many people have paid attention, have visited healthcare.gov. We welcome them to keep coming,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
President Obama compared the rollout to a recent product launch by Apple, when company officials discovered flaws in their mobile operating system.
“Within days, they found a glitch, so they fixed it,” Obama said. “I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t.”
But it was clear on Tuesday that the Affordable Care Act has a way to go before matching the famously user-friendly “Apple experience.”
Visitors encountered a variety of problems navigating both the federally facilitated and state-based exchanges. Much of healthcare.gov was inoperative throughout the day, and users faced nonsense text and slowly loading pages in several areas of the system.
Some state-based sites also failed to load or were taken down amid user problems.
HHS officials were tight-lipped about the rollout on Tuesday afternoon. They said “people” had enrolled in coverage through the federal exchange, but refused to say how many.
Two department spokesmen also declined to answer questions about whether the exchanges encountered any technical glitches other than heavy Web traffic.
Critics said all their warnings about ObamaCare were coming true.
“These ‘glitches,’ which the president is trying to brush off, reveal how totally unprepared the government is for this launch,” House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in a statement.
“The American people deserve better than this train wreck of a law, whose own champions have resorted to tamping down expectations while refusing to consider alternatives.”
Oct. 1 marked the first day that uninsured patients could log on and examine their new coverage options under the healthcare reform law. The exchanges opened despite the government shutdown that has brought most federal services to a halt.
The enrollment window will remain open through the end of March. Coverage can take effect as early as Jan. 1 for consumers who sign up by Dec. 15.
The success or failure of the exchanges has become the central battleground over ObamaCare. Without robust enrollment, the system could fail.
With the help of Hollywood stars, administration officials are waging a major media campaign to get people to sign up.
Supporters of the law cheered the Web traffic figures as a sign that people are eager to sign up for coverage despite the pitched political battles over the healthcare law.
Nearly 3 million users visited the main exchange directory between midnight Monday and 4 p.m. Tuesday, according to federal health officials.
That initial count represents about 40 percent of the people the administration hopes to enroll in ObamaCare over the next six months.
Democrats were in a celebratory mood.
A crowd of activists and labor leaders welcomed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other prominent Democrats at an enrollment celebration on Capitol Hill.
Reid, who received a standing ovation, reminisced about past battles and told the crowd that 2.5 million people had already visited New York’s insurance marketplace.
“If this doesn’t show the hunger the American people have to sign up for healthcare, I don’t know what does,” he said to cheers.
It’s impossible to say whether the technical problems encountered on Tuesday forecast serious problems for the enrollment process. Obama and federal health officials have said many times that they expect challenges in the exchanges’ rollout, given the complexity of the system and the number of moving parts involved.
But Republicans said the misfires are symptomatic of the law’s problems, and pressed ahead Tuesday with their quest to defund and weaken ObamaCare in the battle over
Speaking on the Senate floor, Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) rejected the idea of treating October as a “soft launch” for the marketplaces.
“These exchanges are going live today with too many unanswered questions and too many unsolved problems,” Hatch said.
“The Obama administration should have acknowledged the ample warning signs of problems in the exchanges and heeded the many calls for delay.”
The future success of the enrollment process will depend on several factors.
Federal health officials will have to swiftly address technical problems.
They will have to ensure that visitors to the site ultimately purchase coverage, and that they’re not just browsing.
And they will have to ensure that many enrollees are healthy, younger people — the same population some anti-ObamaCare groups have sought to scare away from the marketplaces.
Supporters of the law appeared undaunted by the challenge ahead.
Reid drew whoops and cheers at the rally when he called the Affordable Care Act the “law of the land” and dismissed GOP attempts to repeal it. “Why don’t they get a life and figure out something else to oppose?” he said.
Sam Baker contributed.