Yesterday, after Congress failed to pass a budget to fund the federal government, large portions of the government shut down. National parks and monuments were closed, 800,000 federal employees were sent home, and numerous government Web sites stopped working — even the National Zoo’s “PandaCam,” showing a live feed of a mother panda and her baby online, went dark. But one government service was available yesterday that wasn’t the day before: the new online health insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), the controversial 2010 law.
Ironically, an attempt by the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act is the reason why so much of the federal government shut down. Funding for much of the federal government expired at the end of September, and House Republicans have insisted on passing new budget resolutions that would remove funding for, or delay, significant portions of the law. These budget resolutions have all been voted down by the Democratic-led Senate, which has instead voted to continue funding the government at current levels without any changes to the health-care law (the House has not voted on the Senate’s budget resolution, which would probably pass if put to a vote, ending the shutdown). Meanwhile, the online exchanges that are the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act have gone into effect, since the subsidies they offer to qualifying individuals and families who use them to buy private health insurance are automatic spending and therefore, by law, cannot be withheld.
But the new insurance exchanges are off to a rocky start, in part because of the enormous number of people who have tried to visit them. According to an article in The New York Times, there have been 10 million attempts to visit the exchange run by New York state — far more on the first day than anyone anticipated. California’s exchange was also popular, seeing 5 million visitors, which made the Web site run slowly.
The Web site for exchanges operated by the federal government, HealthCare.gov — which covers the 34 states that chose not to operate their own exchanges, or to operate them in partnership with the federal government — received over 2.8 million visitors by Tuesday afternoon, also a number much higher than what the government expected. Many visitors experienced problems, such as being told to wait when starting an exchange application (this writer received a “please wait” message on the site and waited for 10 minutes before giving up).
While many problems were caused by the high number of visitors, other glitches — such as drop-down menus with missing items — were clearly unrelated to the number of visitors and were simply technical or design flaws. Marilyn B. Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services — the federal agency responsible for implementing the insurance exchanges — is quoted in the Times article as saying that the enrollment period is “a marathon, not a sprint, and we need your help” to make sure people looking for insurance are enrolled in the next six months (open enrollment lasts until March 31, 2014).
Have you, or has someone you know, already tried to visit the online insurance exchange for your state? If so, were you able to get the information you were looking for? Are technical glitches to be expected for a new and complex Web site, or are you pessimistic about the success of the online exchanges? Do you support or oppose the federal government shutdown over the issue of Obamacare? Leave a comment below!