Wichita The online insurance marketplace for Kansas could not fully handle the crush of consumers who hit the federally run exchange when enrollment opened Tuesday, but the technological glitches were not unexpected as not only the website but the program itself tried to keep up with demand.
On the first day of the six-month open enrollment period, advocates in Kansas were struggling to implement their own portion of the nation's biggest health care coverage expansion in 50 years. The latest U.S. Census bureau estimates that about 358,000 Kansans have no health insurance.
The Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved, the lead agency for the rollout in Kansas, said it had 60 health care navigators or certified application counselors — the program's front-line guides for the new system — across the state ready to work on the first day of enrollment. Another 200 to 225 more were still undergoing training to work, said KAMU spokeswoman Katrina McGivern. Six of those were bilingual in Spanish, and one person knew sign language.
In Lawrence, Rosilyn Wells, a navigator at Heartland Community Health Center, said Tuesday afternoon that she hadn't been able to access the marketplace website, HealthCare.gov, the entire day.
At GraceMed Health Clinic in Wichita, a steady stream of people came showed up for one-on-one sessions with Juven Nava, one of the clinic's two navigators. The clinic has a grant that will allow it to hire two more navigators. By mid-day Tuesday, Nava had seen eight people at the clinic and taken about a dozen phone calls from people seeking to enroll in the state's health insurance exchange.
But Nava has been unable to sign up a single person for insurance coverage. Sometimes he can't even log into the website to sign them up, sometimes the online exchange kicks him off.
"We tell them that with everything there is going to be some glitches," he said. "There is always going to be some bumps, but it is going to get better."
GraceMed's chief executive, Dave Sandford, said that when he tried to get access to the site he got a message to wait because of the high volume, but after waiting 10 minutes he was kicked off. He does not think anything could have been done to handle the significant volume of calls the site was going to get on day one.
"There are probably a lot of folks like me, who already have health insurance, that are just trying to log on to see how it works," Sandford said. "I am probably compounding the problem."
At the Shawnee County Health Agency in Topeka, enrollment coordinator Paige Ashley said she too couldn't obtain the online login she needed to purchase coverage on the site. She was advising people who were calling her to set up appointments to wait at least next week.
Consumers won't start incurring tax penalties for not having coverage until after March 31 of next year and have until Dec. 15 if they want their coverage to start in January.
U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican who's been a vocal critic of the health care overhaul, said he tried unsuccessfully 20 times to get into the exchange. Huelskamp, who represents the sprawling and GOP-leaning 1st District of western and central Kansas, said he's been unable to even create the account that would allow him to purchase insurance. Members of Congress are required by the Affordable Care Act to use the exchange.
"It's not ready to go," he said during an interview. "It's not a glitch. When you can't get online — it's a 'fail.'"
The federal government is running Kansas' exchange because Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP leaders of the Legislature have resisted implementing the Affordable Care Act since its passage three years ago. They have argued that it represents a costly expansion of government.
Manuela Oroteza, a 48-year-old cook at Wichita State University, said she was eager to see if she could afford health care through the new exchange. Her family lives off her $10-per-hour salary and can't afford the coverage the school offers its employees. "The thing is, I don't make that much money and then between taxes and the insurance my paycheck will not be enough to cover my expenses," she said.
As has been the case in many other Republican-led states, Brownback and Kansas' Republican legislative leaders have left it to the federal government to set up the Kansas exchange. In 2011, Brownback refused a $31.5 million federal grant that would have gone toward setting up the computer infrastructure for Kansas' exchange. It also would have funded a $10 million public education campaign that Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger had planned.
—Journal-World reporter Giles Bruce and Associated Press writer John Hanna contributed to this story