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Mixed reviews for updated Obamacare web site

By KELLI KENNEDY
December 5, 2013

Unidentified client tries to sign up for Obamacare in Miami (AP/Pat Carter)

Unidentified client tries to sign up for Obamacare in Miami (AP/Pat Carter)

Counselors helping people use the federal government’s online health exchange are giving mixed reviews to the updated site, with some zipping through the application process while others are facing the same old sputters and even crashes.

The Obama administration had promised a vastly improved shopping experience on healthcare.gov by the end of November, and this is the first week for users to test the updated site.

Brokers and online assisters in Utah said Monday that three of every four people successfully signed up for health coverage on the online within an hour of logging in. A state official overseeing North Dakota’s navigators said he had noticed improvements in the site, as did organizations helping people sign up in parts of Alabama and Wisconsin.

But staffers at an organization in South Florida and a hospital group with locations in Iowa and Illinois said they saw no major improvements from the federal website, which 36 states are relying on.

Amanda Crowell, director of revenue cycle for UnityPoint Health-Trinity, which has four hospitals in Iowa and Illinois, said Monday that the organization’s 15 enrollment counselors did not see a marked improvement on the site.

“We had very high hopes for today, but those hopes were very much quashed,” said Crowell.

More than 1 million people visited the site Monday and 380,000 browsed the site by noon Tuesday. Thanks to the technology fixes, response times had dropped to 1 second and error rates were under 1 percent, according to figures from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“The system has been stable all day,” CMS communications director Julie Bataille said Tuesday, stressing they were still continually updating the site.

But Compuware Corp., which has been monitoring the site on thousands of personal computers around the country, said several states still had response times of more than 8 seconds Tuesday morning. Wisconsin’s average response time is over 18 seconds, according to the company.

Still, Michael Smith, a vice president for Compuware Corp., says the site’s operations have improved significantly. Their data shows 26 states had unacceptable response times in late October. He said the government is likely measuring response times from a data center with ultra-fast Internet speeds that are not reflective of real-world conditions on user’s regular computers.

Roberta Vann, a certified application counselor at the Hamilton Health Center, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said the site worked well for her Monday morning but she became frustrated later when the site went down.

“You can get to a point, but it does not allow you to select any plans, you can’t get eligibility (information). It stops there,” she said. “The thought of it working as well as it was didn’t last long.”

In South Florida, John Foley and his team of navigators were only able to successfully enroll one of a handful of return applicants who came to their office before glitches started, including wonky estimates for subsidy eligibility. He worried about how they would fare with the roughly 50 other appointments scheduled later in the week.

Although frustrated, most were not deterred, he said.

“These are people that have policies going away, who have health problems. These are people that are going to be very persistent,” said Foley, an attorney and certified counselor for Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.

Despite the Obama administration’s team of technicians working around the clock, it’s not clear if the site will be able to handle the surge of applicants expected by the Dec. 23 deadline to enroll for coverage starting at the beginning of the year. Many navigators also say they’re concerned the bad publicity plaguing the troubled website will prevent people from giving the system another try.

Federal health officials acknowledged the website is still a work in progress. They’ve also acknowledged the importance of fixing back-end problems as insurers struggle to process applications because of incomplete or inaccurate data. Even when consumers think they’ve gone through the whole process, their information may not get to the insurer without problems.

In less than an hour Monday, Starla Redmon, 58, of Paris, Ill., was able to successfully get into a health plan with help from an enrollment counselor. Redmon, who juggles two part-time jobs and has been uninsured for four years, said she was surprised the website worked so well after hearing reports about its problems.

“Everything she typed in, it went through,” said Redmon, who chose a bronze plan and will pay about $75 a month after a tax credit. “It was the cheapest plan I could go with.”

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Carla K. Johnson in Chicago; Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas; Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa; Peter Jackson in Harrisburg, Pa.; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis.; James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D.; Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; and Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala.

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Follow Kelli Kennedy on Twitter at twitter.com/kkennedyAP

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