Handful of people manage to buy health insurance through new website

Although people trying to shop for health insurance on Louisiana’s new online marketplace continue to be stymied Thursday by computer glitches and long waits, two of the insurance companies selling policies through the federally run “Obamacare” website reported a small number of sales in the past couple of days.

The website — HealthCare.gov — opened for business on Tuesday with much fanfare, but it was immediately overwhelmed by the number of people trying to check out the insurance policies available under the federal health law that kicks into high gear early next year. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday tweeted that the site had seen more than 7 million unique visitors in the past few days, which it said was more than visit Southwest Airlines’ website in a month.

The centerpiece of the federal law — the source of continued political controversy since it was signed by President Barack Obama in March 2010 — is the online marketplaces where companies can sell plans at different coverage levels and prices. While some states are operating their own websites, Louisiana residents, along with those in 35 other states, are all logging onto the website run by the federal health agency.

Insurance giant Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, which intends to sell marketplace policies in every parish, reported that the company received news of seven applications for policies overnight from the federal government. Vantage Health Plan, a Monroe-based company, knew of five policies sold through the marketplace, a spokesman said Thursday morning.

Although the website remains slow and full of bugs, John Maginnis, a Blue Cross spokesman, heralded the first policy sales as a sign that things were turning around after at least a day when the company’s testers were unable to get past the sign-up portion of the website.

“This is very good news,” he said. “This is an indication to us that HealthCare.gov is beginning to function as it was intended to.”

Still, most users remained unable to easily navigate the swamped website.

In New Orleans, one of the organizations that aims to help sign up uninsured people during the open enrollment period reported that staff members remained unable to get past the initial screens on the website. This means Southern United Neighborhoods’ five “navigators” — staffers trained to guide people through the insurance purchasing process — have not yet seen exactly what plans are available for people in the area, said Marie Hurt, the group’s director.

Instead, the group has shifted to helping people fill out paper applications, which allow people to register for the program and, if they provide income information, see whether they are eligible for subsidies to help pay for coverage. The state estimates that 350,000 uninsured people in Louisiana could be eligible for financial assistance to buy insurance through the online marketplace.

“It is better than nothing. People come in on lunch break; you don’t have forever,” Hurt said. But even if people mail in paper applications now, they will need to get online eventually to check out the plans and see what they might want to purchase.

Hurt has been fielding calls from others trying to log onto the site from their homes. Those who have managed to delve into the site report that they had to dedicate hours to that effort.

Billy Justice, director of marketing and sales for Vantage, said employees at his company have heard from prospective customers who have made it far enough into the website to look at the plans, but have held off on committing to a plan. This makes sense, he said, since those who sign up for a plan will quickly have to pay an initial premium, while the coverage won’t start until Jan. 1. It makes more sense for customers to look at plans first but not actually make a purchase until later on, he said.

The open enrollment period extends through March 31. However, in order to get coverage starting Jan. 1, people will need to sign up and make a payment on a plan by Dec. 15.

Along with Vantage and Blue Cross, Louisiana Health Cooperative, a new insurance company started with a federally backed loan, is selling plans across the state. A spokesman did not respond Thursday to a request for information about sales. Humana, which in Louisiana is selling marketplace plans only in Jefferson Parish, could not provide Louisiana-specific information.

Subsidies are available to purchase insurance if a family’s income is between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of three people, that means it would be eligible for reduced prices on the marketplace plans if the family makes between $19,530 and $78,120 a year, with the subsidies shrinking as incomes grow.