TOPICS > Health

Opening day of insurance exchanges overwhelmed by online rush

October 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Americans eager to explore or sign up on the new online insurance exchanges were confronted with technical glitches due to the rush of traffic on the website. Judy Woodruff talks to Julie Rovner of NPR and Louise Radnofsky of The Wall Street Journal about who was shopping for health care coverage on day one of the program.

GWEN IFILL: The shutdown did begin on the very same day that one of the most critical pieces of the health care law began to take effect.

Judy picks up story from there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the day that people can start enrolling for health insurance through new online marketplaces known as exchanges. In all, the federal government is running or partnering with local officials to run these in 36 states.

The remainder of states and the District of Columbia are operating their own exchanges. People will be able to enroll through March, but there were plenty of glitches on day one. When many went to the federal Web site, health, to learn more, they often saw a screen that read: “Please wait. We have a lot of visitors on the site right now.”

Some state-run sites had similar problems, too.

During his appearance in the Rose Garden, the president said heavy demand had something to do with that.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We found out that there have been times this morning where the site has been running more slowly than it normally will.

The reason is because more than one million people visited before 7:00 in the morning. To put that in context, there were five times more users in the marketplace this morning than have ever been on at one time.

That gives you a sense of how important this is to millions of Americans around the country. And that’s a good thing. And we’re going to be speeding things up in the next few hours to handle all this demand that exceeds anything that we had expected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it’s not clear yet just how many people tried to sign up on the various exchanges around the country today, but we look at what we do know so far with two reporters who followed this story extensively: Julie Rovner of NPR and Louise Radnofsky of The Wall Street Journal.

Welcome back to the NewsHour to both of you.

So, without talking about birds — and it is great to hear the economist with the birds in the background — but how did it go today in general, Julie? What was the sense, overall, of how it went?

JULIE ROVNER, National Public Radio: Well, classic good news/bad news story.

I think the administration’s biggest fear is that they would open up and nobody would show up. And that’s definitely not what happened. Lots and lots of people tried to show up, and I think it overwhelmed the capacity of the exchanges to deal with them, both in terms of the Web sites and the call centers and places to try to get help.

And it was not just the federal exchanges. It was the state-run exchanges, too. Everybody seemingly just got overwhelmed, so people had trouble getting on and getting in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Louise, the administration was reporting over a million people tried to look at the Web site before 7:00. Why weren’t they prepared for it?

LOUISE RADNOFSKY, The Wall Street Journal: Well, they have said now that it is 2.8 million since midnight tried to go on. We don’t know with these people how many were journalists trying to see if everything was running smoothly, or how many were people who were just interested, as opposed to people who were actually trying to sign up for coverage or consider their options.

But, certainly, the administration had said previously they didn’t expect the sites would crash. They had pointed to their success running the Medicare Web site, and something the president mentioned earlier today. Clearly, they didn’t expect 2.8 million people. That’s what they’re saying. And they have had to add capacity over the day, but they didn’t expect it this morning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Julie, tell us about the major of the glitches. How much of it was just the crush and the number of people trying to get on to the site?

JULIE ROVNER: Well, we had a call with federal officials late this afternoon, and we asked them that question. We didn’t quite find out how much of this is that they just weren’t ready and how much of it was just the overwhelming nature.

They did say that this was seven times more people than they have ever had on the Medicare Web site. So, it really was a lot of people. And, again, it wasn’t just the federal Web site. It was state Web sites, also. But there seemed to be particular places where people got hung up.

You have to create an account to really get on to some of these Web sites and even start looking, start to compare some of the plans. And a lot of people got hung up at the security question place. You have to create an account and have some of these security questions. What was your first car? What was your pet’s first name? That seemed to hang a lot of people up.

They couldn’t tell us why those security questions seemed to stop so many people, whether that was a software problem or just a nature of too many people on the Web site problem. They say that, by later in the day, it did seem that a lot — that some, not all, of the problems were being taken care of. So, some of it does seem to have just been capacity, again, a lot of people trying to get on this first day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Louise, what would you add to what you could glean so far today? Because I know you have been — both of you have been talking with people around the country in terms of the glitches, the problems that people were having.

LOUISE RADNOFSKY: Well, in addition to hearing that there has been difficulty loading the Web site for many people and the security question hurdle that people have found when creating accounts, we have been hearing that not everybody who has tried to enroll in the federally facilitated exchange states has been able to do so.

The administration says that some people have been able to enroll. We’re saying that many people are not, based on what we’re hearing from insurers in these parts of the country. That seems to be more of a problem with the data hub itself, not a capacity issue with the Web site and not a software glitch, but something seems to be going wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it is not clear yet what it is?

LOUISE RADNOFSKY: It is not clear yet how many people, for example, are unable to complete their enrollments. But, again, the administration says that some have been able to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you mentioned, of course — and we made the distinction earlier, Julie, about that some of these exchanges are run by the state, but many more are run by the federal government in partnership with the states.

Is there a difference in how they’re running based on who is running them?

JULIE ROVNER: There seems to be.

In some states, they’re obviously running better. Some exchanges seem to be running better than others. Some of them seem to be having no problem with people getting on, creating accounts, but when they get to that last enrollment hurdle, they’re having trouble.

Now, it’s important to say, this is the first day. Not very many people were expected to actually enroll today. It is sort of like Christmas shopping season. This is kind of like Black Friday. People are — a lot of people are going in and looking around and seeing what is there.

Remember, you don’t have to actually sign up for coverage that starts in January until December 15. So, it is kind of surprising that people would really sign up and try to enroll today anyway.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we should clarify, Louise, there is not a penalty. If people don’t sign up today, or even in the month of October, they’re not penalized, are they?

LOUISE RADNOFSKY: No. January 1 is the date upon which you are supposed to have coverage or pay a penalty. In practice as well, there are some exemptions for people who have coverage for most of the calender year of 2014. Conceivably, you could go a little past January 1.

But the administration is emphasizing the December 15 date for enrollment, because, by January 1, you can actually have a policy that covers you for the first time subject to the requirements under the law and benefit for the subsidy if that’s something you’re eligible for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Julie, what kind of folks would have been looking to sign up today? These are people who don’t have insurance right now, is that right?

JULIE ROVNER: Pretty much.

And the people — there was some concern that if there were a lot of glitches that people might get discouraged and not come back. But I think the people who were there today are the really motivated people. These are people who don’t have insurance and really want it, probably the people with preexisting conditions who haven’t been able to get it.

So, these are people who are likely come back if they had problems today. And they’re going to come back tomorrow or next week or next month. These aren’t the young people who are thinking, oh, I really should get insurance. Those people probably are not going to show up until they’re getting pushed by their parents.

So, the concerns about glitches discouraging people are probably not a big issue with this first day. These are very — the very highly motivated people, frankly, that insurers are worried about signing up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Louise, what are you picking up about who is trying to sign up?

LOUISE RADNOFSKY: Well, interestingly, we’re hearing that some of the people who have been going to the Web sites today have been people who currently have Medicare or employer-sponsored insurance who are just curious about the offer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, who already have coverage?

LOUISE RADNOFSKY: The exchanges are primarily — yes, the exchanges are primarily aimed at people who don’t have access to insurance through one of these ways already. Either they’re in the individual market or uninsured.


JUDY WOODRUFF: If you already have coverage and you — you mean looking to compare?

LOUISE RADNOFSKY: They’re browsing mostly. And they’re probably not going through the sign-up process.

If they were through the sign-up process, then they would probably be told at various points along the ways things like they’re not going to be eligible for a subsidy towards the cost of coverage and that the individual market, probably they will figure out, won’t offer them a better deal than what they already have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Julie, just quickly, what is the administration looking for? How will they know that this is going successfully or not? I mean, we know they wanted to sign up several million. And we heard Paul’s point about they really want to sign up these younger, healthy people.

JULIE ROVNER: That’s right.

Their goal for this first year is to get seven million people signed up. They want 2.8 million of those to be younger, healthier people. There will be a lot of outreach, a lot of advertising. And they’re hoping that the people will not be discouraged by some of those negative ads.

I think they’re probably — as frustrated as I’m sure they are by the glitches today, I’m sure they’re pleased by the turnout. Again, some of these people are browsing and have no intention of signing up, but, still, a lot more people than they expected have showed up today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, quickly, Louise, so they are — and they’re going to extra lengths to try to appeal to these young people still?


And supporters have put a lot of stock around Thanksgiving conversations with parents and Christmas, maybe after people have completed their Christmas shopping, to try to get them to sign up. So, they’re certainly emphasizing — and we have heard this an awful lot in the last few days, that this is a six-month marathon, not a sprint.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Louise Radnofsky, Julie Rovner, we thank you.

JULIE ROVNER: You’re welcome.