UPDATED — Many visit state's new health exchange, but no sign-up estimates as of yet (with related stories)

By Associated Press
and Peninsula Daily News

Urging patience, Obama says problems with health care sites reflect demand
By JACKIE CALMES
c. 2013 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON —

President Obama urged Americans who have flocked to the new government-run Web marketplaces for health insurance policies not to give up because of the technical problems attributed to greater-than-anticipated demand.

Fixes are under way, he said.

Obama, in an interview with The Associated Press released on Saturday, said he did not have any figures to counter scattered reports that just a very small number of people have succeeded in signing up for insurance coverage since state and federal Web sites began enrollment on Tuesday for the so-called insurance exchanges.

Those are a central part of Obama's health care law, which was passed in 2010 to extend coverage to those who do not get insurance benefits on the job.

People “definitely shouldn't give up,” Obama said.

Citing the slow start to a similar program for Massachusetts residents several years ago, the president predicted that when the six-month window for enrollment ends in March, “we are going to probably exceed what anybody expected in terms of the amount of interest that people had.”

House Republicans — who forced a shutdown of the federal government, which also started on Tuesday, by demanding that the health care law be defunded or delayed as a condition for their approving financing for the government in the new fiscal year — were quick to jump on the snags as validation of their opposition to the program.

Yet Obama and other Democrats have countered that public demand caused technical problems with the new state and federal Web sites, evidence of the popularity of what the health care program has to offer.

“The interest way exceeded expectations, and that's the good news,” Obama said in the interview.

“It shows that people really need and want affordable health care” from insurers that have bid to compete in the insurance exchanges.

As for the problems that frustrated many of the millions who have visited the Web sites, Obama said help was on the way.

“Folks are working around the clock and have been systematically reducing the wait times,” he said.

With the health care law at the center of the continuing budget dispute between the White House and the Republican-led House, Obama reiterated that he would negotiate with Republican leaders only once they agreed to finance the government and increase the nation's borrowing limit, which will be reached on Oct. 17.

Referring to Speaker John A. Boehner, Obama said:

“What I've said to him is we are happy to negotiate on anything.

"We are happy to talk about the health care law, we're happy to talk about the budget, we're happy to talk about deficit reduction, we're happy to talk about investments.

"But what we can't do is keep engaging in this sort of brinksmanship where a small faction of the Republican Party ends up forcing them into brinksmanship to see if they can somehow get more from negotiations by threatening to shut down the government or threatening America not paying its bills.”

The president also repeated, as many Republicans have acknowledged, that the House could pass measures both to finance and reopen the government and increase the nation's borrowing limit, averting a catastrophic default, if Boehner would allow votes.

Both sides say that House Democrats and more moderate Republicans would provide the majority support needed to send both measures to Obama to be signed.

With the more troublesome deadline looming for raising the debt limit, Obama did not explicitly rule out taking some unilateral action to increase it — though senior administration officials have.

“I don't expect to get there,” he said, citing news reports that Boehner has privately told House Republicans that he would not allow a breach of the debt ceiling to occur.
EDITOR'S NOTE: — The Washington Healthplanfinder is online at www.wahealthplanfinder.org. Or you can phone 855-923-4633 weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Related stories:

"Now's a good time to visit Healthplanfinder site (first-person experience)" — http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2021968661_ptechinsuranceexchangexml.html

"Left off many networks, Seattle Children's sues" — http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2021968776_acachildrenssuitxml.html

Previous stories:

"Q&A: Answers to your most pressing questions about you and the Affordable Care Act" — http://www.peninsuladailynews.com/article/20130929/NEWS/309299989.

"North Olympic Peninsula gets ready for 'Obamacare' — with not enough providers in Clallam County" — http://www.peninsuladailynews.com/article/20130929/NEWS/130929969

Face-to-face help

On the North Olympic Peninsula, public hospitals and agencies offer face-to-face help. They are:

■   Olympic Area Agency on Aging — 411 W. Washington St., Sequim, 360-452-3221; 481 Fifth Ave., Forks, 360-374-9496; and 915 Sheridan St., Port Townsend, 360-385-2552.

■ Volunteers in Medicine of the Olympics — 909 Georgiana St., Port Angeles, 360-457-4431.

■   Olympic Medical Center — 939 Caroline St., Port Angeles, 360-417-7000.

■   Jefferson Healthcare hospital — 834 Sheridan St., Port Townsend, 360-385-2200.

■   Jefferson County Public Health Department — 615 Sheridan St., Port Townsend, 360-385-9400.

■   Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, Port Angeles Health Center — 426 E. Eighth St., Port Angeles, 800-230-7526.

■   Forks Community Hospital, 530 Bogachiel Way, 360-374-6271.

In addition, check with your local insurance broker.


SEATTLE (AP) — After a troubled rollout of the Washington's new health care website, officials on Friday couldn't say how many of the state's one million uninsured people had signed up for health insurance in the first week of operation.

They did know the website had 180,000 total visits, by 43,629 unique visitors.

More than 28,000 accounts were set up, which means people filled out forms with their personal information but didn't necessarily finish their application or sign up for insurance.

Bethany Frey, spokeswoman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, said they won't have accurate numbers of how many people actually signed up for insurance until Monday, in part because so many couldn't get online and filled out a paper application.

"Anything I gave you would be wildly inaccurate," she said, after talking to the system's data crunchers.

Operators at the call center, who were also writing down some information on paper, took more than 20,000 calls since the program launched on Tuesday.

Those who went to community centers and other places to get in-person assistance, also had their information taken on paper first.

Many Washington residents who set out to tackle an online application on their own turned to the call center for help when they ran into problems, either because of glitches on the website or because they didn't understand something about the process.

The Washington Health Benefit Exchange reported average call center wait times of 14 minutes in the first week.

Some customers said they waited much longer and others reported the phone system hung up on them after a recorded announcement about unusually heavy call volumes.

Joel DeJong, who runs a small health related business in Seattle, said he stayed on hold for about an hour before hanging up.

DeJong, 37, whose family of five is uninsured, said he tried the website first and returned to it every day until computer problems wore him down.

He finally gave up on Friday after he couldn't convince wahealthplanfinder.org that his wife and three kids were all American citizens.

He tried to sign up as soon as the new health care program went online Tuesday because he was so excited about the idea of getting insurance for the first time in year.

DeJong used to pay $1,000 a month for his healthy family to be insured, but they decided it wasn't worth it.

He was excited about the new health care law and can't wait to get his family signed up.

"I feel like I'm pretty tech savvy," said DeJong, who has applied for jobs online and even bought insurance online. "I can't get through this website without talking to somebody.

His next step will be visiting one of the community centers offering help and getting someone else to navigate the system for him.

Some people did manage to get through the application process and review their choices, but some of them chose not to buy insurance through the exchange for other reasons.

Astrid Rial of Tacoma said she and her husband will stick with the family insurance they buy through the Association of Washington Business, after seeing the prices on the new state exchange.

"I was hoping to get better coverage for my money," Rial said. "What I found was sticker shock."

Rial and her husband, who run a small consulting and training business and have one child at home, do not qualify for a federal subsidy.

They currently pay $777 a month for insurance. The least expensive plan they found on the exchange was $783 for a lot less coverage than they have now. The most expensive plan was $1,536.

She said her current plan is pretty basic: "I call our plan the coal plan."

That's her riff off the new federal guidelines that label plans as silver, gold, etc. But even her own health insurance company, Premera, seemed to offer more expensive plans on the Washington healthplanfinder, Rial said.

"I was hoping that the Affordable Care Act would provide better coverage for the same monthly premium or maybe even lower my monthly premium," she said.

The plan for the future for Rial and her husband, who are both 51: Stay on their current plan unless something changes and they need more health insurance.

Washington residents have six months to buy health insurance through the new exchange during the first enrollment period ending in March.

The state estimates about 1 million Washington state residents do not have health insurance, or about one in seven people.

The state hopes to enroll 130,000 people for health insurance in 2014 and another 280,000 in 2015. Another 325,000 people will be eligible to sign up for free insurance through Medicaid.

Under the Affordable Care Act, people who don't have insurance in 2014 will pay a fine when they file their federal income taxes in early 2015.

he fines for people who ignore the new law are scheduled to increase over time.

Last modified: October 06. 2013 10:59AM
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