Charlotte-area insurance agents and navigators who have been trying since Oct. 1 to help people enroll in health insurance say the federal government’s online marketplace is working much better since Nov. 30.
That was the deadline, imposed by President Barack Obama’s administration, to get the malfunctioning website, Healthcare.gov, running smoothly after its disastrous kickoff.
“Every day it’s getting a little better,” said Chris Blount, an agent with Piedmont Benefits Group in Charlotte. “On October 1, on a scale of 1 to 10, it was point 5. Now it’s probably a 7. We are actually getting people through.
“Some (people are) not 100 percent thrilled,” Blount said. “But our store is just full of people, and we’re starting to see a lot of success stories. ... We’ve got a stack of applications in our office, and we can’t get them through fast enough.”
Significant problems remain. The “back end” of the system that accepts payments is still not working properly. And only a small fraction of the 7 million people the Obama administration hopes to enroll have actually signed up.
Meanwhile, trained navigators at Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont and North Carolina MedAssist are also seeing improvement.
“Although still not perfect, Healthcare.gov has become much more reliable over the past few weeks,” said Madison Hardee, a Legal Services lawyer who is helping clients enroll. “We are now regularly able to get consumers all the way through the process in one sitting.”
The Affordable Care Act requires most people to buy insurance or pay a fine. To get coverage by Jan. 1, consumers must enroll by Dec. 15. But they have until the end of March to sign up and avoid a penalty.
The federal website was created to allow consumers to shop for insurance plans from a variety of companies and also apply for subsidies, in the form of advance tax credits, to pay for premiums.
An estimated 80,000 Mecklenburg County residents will qualify for premium subsidies. But when consumers, insurance agents and navigators tried to sign up on opening day, Oct. 1, they were met with frozen computer screens and error messages. A few people got through but many couldn’t get far enough to even compare insurance plans, much less enroll.
The experience was better in some states, such as Kentucky and California, that opted to create their own websites. But North Carolina and South Carolina, which chose not to create their own websites, are relying on the federal site, which was immediately overwhelmed by the number of people who attempted to use it.
‘Going much more smoothly’
Since mid-November, the website has been working better, said Bryan Hough, owner of Carolina Health Insurance Market in Gastonia. His agents have enrolled about 60 people, most of them since Nov. 15. One day last week, “we enrolled somebody in 30 minutes,” Hough said.
One of his agents, Jeff Brown, signed up a 63-year-old woman, who qualified for a $646 monthly tax credit on a Coventry plan premium, so she’ll pay only $17 out of pocket each month. The retired nursing home employee also qualified for federal financial assistance with other health insurance costs.
“She has a great plan,” Brown said. “Things are going much more smoothly.”
The administration hopes to sign up 7 million people by the end of the enrollment period on March 31.
Nationally, an estimated 29,000 people enrolled in insurance plans in the first two days of December, exceeding the number of enrollments on the federal exchange in all of October, according to published reports. In all of October, just 26,000 people enrolled on the federal exchange.
Those numbers represent the people who have selected a plan, not necessarily those who have completed the process. A technical team continues to build and repair the “back end” of the system that handles payments.
‘Back end’ issues persist, frustrate
Once consumers have completed applications on Healthcare.gov, the website is supposed to transfer them to the insurance company they have chosen so they can arrange payment. Hough in Gastonia said he and his agents are taking consumers directly to the insurance company websites or calling the insurers to help arrange payments.
Federal officials have said they will have the “back end” of the site running soon enough to accept payments in time for the Jan. 1 deadline. But Blount, the Charlotte agent, said that glitch is causing a lot of confusion.
“That’s been our biggest frustration,” Hough said. “We get people through the marketplace and get a confirmation number. But we know they still have to pay for the plan.
“They may think they’re enrolled. But until they’ve actually paid the insurance company, they are not enrolled. ... I think you’re going to have a bunch of people … who think they bought it, and they didn’t.”
Success stories increasing
He suggested that people who are unsure should seek help from an agent or a navigator.
“We know to close the loop on that process.”
Blount recounted multiple success stories from recent days, including a woman who got a “great plan for $35 a month because of the subsidy” and one whose out-of-pocket premium will be 57 cents a month.
But he’s had unhappy customers, too.
“The ones that I’m finding that are not happy are the ones that don’t get a subsidy” or have access to insurance through a spouse whose employer offers a health plan. If the plan accepts nonemployee spouses, they cannot qualify for a subsidy, even if the cost of joining the employer-sponsored plan is unaffordable.
While the website is working better, Blount worries there isn’t enough time left.
“I still see hundreds of thousands of people are not going to be enrolled by January 1.”
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