After months of build-up, Florida residents can start shopping for health insurance on government-run online marketplaces as the key component of the Affordable Care Act goes live. But there were already several kinks in the system early Tuesday.
The federal government is facing two major hurdles: fighting the confusion and misinformation surrounding the plan, commonly referred to as "Obamacare," and making sure the new technology systems function properly. Consumers logging onto healthcare.gov received an apology message for delays due to high traffic. The wait times at the call center and for an online chat operator were also longer than expected.
Federal health officials played up the traffic, saying more than 1 million people visited the site in the past day, adding there were five times more users on the website Tuesday morning than had ever been on the Medicare website. The online speed is gradually improving and all functions were expected to be fixed in the coming hours, federal health officials said.
"We have built a dynamic system and are prepared to make adjustments as needed and improve the consumer experience," said Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters.
It will likely take weeks or months to gauge the law's success. Coverage doesn't begin until January, and the enrollment period ends in March.
Gepsie Metellus, executive director of the Sant La community center in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, will call into Haitian Creole radio programs Tuesday to tell people they have plenty of time to enroll, explain how the exchanges will work, and warn people against anyone who charges them a fee for information about the federal health law. She plans to record similar messages for local television later this week.
Counselors hoping to start enrolling consumers sat alone in a Pensacola office with no visitors in the first few hours Tuesday. Workers were able to fill out the online application, but the website was unable to process it. A handful of state Democrats and union groups planned to host enrollment events in Jacksonville, Orlando, West Palm, Miami and Broward later in the day.
The liberal advocacy group Families USA estimates that roughly half of Florida's 3.5 million uninsured residents will be eligible for federal subsidies to help them purchase insurance. But the amount will vary widely depending on income, location, the plan, family size, age, and even tobacco use. Florida residents can choose from 102 plans, the second-highest of any state. Federal health officials were supposed to finally reveal how much plans would cost in Florida's marketplace early Tuesday morning, but that was also delayed.
Alex Gomez, a Miami father of four, said he planned to wait awhile before shopping on the online marketplace, where he hopes to purchase a better quality plan than the $500 a month high-deductible family plan he currently has.
"Nobody knows what Obamacare is. One person says it's going to be good, another person says it's going to be bad," said Gomez. He didn't know he is likely eligible for a government subsidy through the new marketplace. Residents making less than roughly $46,000 a year and a four-person family with an income of less than $94,000 a year may receive vouchers to help offset premium costs.
"That's good news for me," said the 38-year-old self-employed painting contractor.
The exchanges are meant to have the feel of an online travel website, where consumers can compare prices and benefits of different plans. But in a potentially significant delay, the administration told Hispanic groups last week that the Spanish-language version of the website will not be ready to handle online enrollments for a few weeks. In Florida, nearly 580,000 Hispanics are eligible for health coverage through the marketplace.
"I'm concerned about the delay knowing there was a large Latino community that needed it. I don't think that was very well planned," said Maria Pinzon, executive director of the Hispanic Services Council in Tampa.
But she stressed that one-on-one outreach will be more powerful than the government website. Her organization is partnering with several local churches.
Supporters of the law have criticized Republican Gov. Rick Scott, saying his concerns over consumers' personal information are a scare tactic to hinder enrollment. Scott and the Republican-led Legislature have been reluctant to implement portions of the federal health reform. State officials recently banned counselors from entering county health departments to help sign people up for health insurance.
The state has only approved 34 of 96 navigator licenses so far. The counselors are not legally allowed to conduct outreach without a license, which means a majority won't be able to do their job on launch day. Several states are spending millions on marketing campaigns, but Florida isn't spending any of its own money.
Insurance plans offered through the exchange have undergone a major upgrade. As of Jan. 1, insurers can no longer turn away people with pre-existing medical conditions, and they will be limited in what they can charge to older policy holders. Consumers' financial exposure will be capped. Insurers are also required to offer beefed up benefits under the plans, so while prices may increase, consumers will be getting an upgraded product.
Anyone making below the poverty line won't be eligible for subsidies through the online marketplace. Federal health officials anticipate roughly 1 million Floridians will fall into a gap where they can't get health insurance because the state rejected Medicaid expansion.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.