By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
Updated 8:20 p.m. Thursday
LINCOLN — Two weeks into the roll out of Obamacare’s online health insurance market, the two organizations chosen to help uninsured Nebraskans navigate the system haven’t been able to sign up a single person for coverage.
Community Action of Nebraska was awarded about $562,000 and The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska nearly $38,000 to help people find health insurance on the federally run insurance exchange that began operating — and we use that term loosely — Oct. 1. The online marketplace, Healthcare.gov, repeatedly freezes, says “come back later” or crashes when people attempt to create an account so they can shop around for a plan.
Roger Furrer, executive director of Community Action, was tasked with helping nearly 40,000 uninsured Nebraskans navigate Obamacare. The group hired 62 “navigators” to educate Nebraskans and walk them through the enrollment process.
Although Community Action had received about 450 calls as of Wednesday, Furrer wasn’t aware of a single person who had successfully navigated the process, either online or by phone.
“It’s still an exercise in frustration for most people,” he said. “We are finally starting to get people past the barrier of creating their account.”
Jan Henderson, spokeswoman for the Ponca Tribe, said they haven’t been able to sign anyone up either.
“Our navigators are still having problems accessing the application online,” she said via email. “We try several times a day and have called the (toll free) number in which we are told that they are experiencing technical difficulties.”
The tribe is charged with helping American Indians in 15 counties navigate the new health insurance program.
Furrer said people would get close, and then the website would crash. One person was very close to success — at the verification stage — when some of the information they’d already entered didn’t pull through.
“We knew that it was going to be a rough start,” he said. “I don’t think that we estimated that it would be as slow as it was.”
Furrer said Nebraskans have been very patient and polite about the glitches, but their patience is wearing thin after two weeks.
“They basically just want confirmation that they’re not the only ones having the same problem,” he said. “The number of frayed tempers is beginning to increase … It’s a totally understandable reaction. I totally get it. We would love to be able to fix it.”
But fix it he can’t, since Nebraska is one of nearly three dozen states that opted not to create their own insurance markets and instead left it up to the feds.
He thinks part of the problem is most of his clients are trying to sign up during the day, during peak traffic times.
Although the crush of people trying to get on the site was initially blamed for the glitches, experts increasingly believe the site was bogged because initially, people were required to first set up an account and divulge personal information. The site now allows people to check out the prices before setting up an account.
That’s what puzzled Lincoln accountant Todd Blome when he tried to use the website to see what the marketplace had to offer after learning his individual Blue Cross Blue Shield Nebraska plan was being cancelled and he’d have to pay a 65 percent higher premium for a similar plan that complies with Obamacare mandates.
Whereas he got his previous plan by shopping around on ehealthinsurance.com without having to divulge personal information first, on Healthcare.gov comparison shopping is the last step.
“This is so backwards and counterintuitive,” he said. “What other e-commerce site handles a product shopping and purchase experience like this?”
After two days of trying to log in to Healthcare.gov, he finally succeeded, but then was asked “a bunch of personal information,” including his Social Security number, email address, income and phone number.
“I’m not interested in the government’s full body cavity search so I entered some bogus information,” Blome said. “The page crashed when I clicked to go to the next screen.”
He wasn’t able to log in again the next day and after several days of trying he said, “I’m done trying.”
Blome decided to directly contact the four insurance companies selling policies on the Nebraska exchange. He can buy a policy directly from them since he’s not eligible for a federal tax credit anyway. Blue Cross is one of the companies, and their options are the same ones he’d already been presented (the cheapest is a 55 percent increase in his premium).
He wasn’t able to get pricing from two of the companies, and the fourth company, CoOpportunity (a cooperative created with federal financing) had a cheaper premium ($750 versus $826) but with higher co-pays and much higher out-of-network costs.
He plans to shop on ehealthinsurance.com again when they have new plans available later this fall.
“I’m officially done with the federal exchange,” he said. “My patience and tolerance for dealing with this government-run mess has reached its limit. I’m actually very blessed that I don’t have to purchase my insurance through the government exchange. I feel sorry for those that have to.”
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