PORTLAND – Only a few people showed up in person at Portland Community Health Center on Tuesday to inquire about signing up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act, the first day people could enroll for subsidized benefits.

But Libby Cummings’ phone rang steadily throughout the afternoon, from about two dozen people interested in setting up appointments to sign up for insurance.

“I got so many phone calls today,” said Cummings, an outreach specialist at the center.

The health center was one of several places in the Portland area where people could sign up in person, but many were also examining plans online or calling the toll-free number. The New York Times reported that www.healthcare.gov was overwhelmed with millions of people looking at the site, causing frequent web site crashes, especially on Tuesday morning. The Press Herald tested the site in the morning, and an error message appeared until about 10:45 a.m., when the enrollment page came up.

Tuesday was a key test run to enroll the uninsured, often the self-employed or part-time workers who don’t have insurance through their employer. While the federal government also shut down on Tuesday, the ACA’s funding was protected, and people could still sign up.

Consumers have through March 31 to sign up for insurance for 2014 coverage.

In Augusta, Jesse Miller, 36, looked over various plans at Consumers for Affordable Health Care offices, a health advocacy group. While the web site was down and he couldn’t sign up, Miller said he plans to enroll soon on the marketplace because he can’t get affordable insurance through his employers. “I’ve gone without insurance for the past six years,” said Miller, a part-time faculty member at various colleges in Maine teaching Englih and fiction. But Miller, who earns about $30,000 per year, said while he used to have an “invincible” approach, he doesn’t feel that way now that age 40 is approaching. “The world is a giant banana peel you can slip on, and who knows what can happen,” Miller said.

He said depending on what plan he chose, he would pay about $200 per month, which he can afford.

For the Opportunity Alliance, which is also helping with the effort to enroll people on the marketplace, director Karen Turgeon said they are not prepared right now to help people who walk in off the street to sign up, and several did so on Tuesday after the Alliance was listed in a Press Herald story as one of several organizations named in the www.enroll207.com web site that assists people with enrollment. The enroll207 web site is operated by the Maine Health Access Foundation, which is spending about $500,000 in an effort to help raise awareness of the ACA.

Turgeon said people can still call for an in-person appointment, and the non-profit group may in the coming months be able to take walk-ins.

Meanwhile, Brian Delaney, a contractor working for the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, which is also one of the groups helping people enroll, said they fielded about six phone calls and had two inquiries forwarded to them through the web site.

“It’s prime lobster season, so they weren’t too interested in insurance (Tuesday),” Delaney said.

Kevin Lewis, president of Maine Community Health Options, one of two insurance providers offering plans on the marketplace, said early indications are showing strong interest.

“We were bustling today,” Lewis said. “It was very encouraging with the level of demand and interest.”

While many would go through www.healthcare.gov to enroll, consumers could also opt to go to the MCHO web site and go through most of the process before finalizing enrollment at the federal web site.

Lewis said the MCHO web site had 600 unique visitors checking out the enrollment page, but he doesn’t yet know how many completed enrolling. The other insurance provider, Anthem, did not immediately have numbers of enrollees on Tuesday afternoon

At the Portland waterfront, officials and health care advocated hosted an event touting the ACA’s benefits.

Christie Hager, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official helping to implement the ACA, struck a defiant tone at ceremonies marking the opening of the health insurance marketplace on Tuesday at Bell Buoy Park.

As Hager spoke, the federal government was in the midst of a shutdown that started Tuesday over attempts by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to delay the start of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats, who control the U.S. Senate, have blocked efforts to weaken the ACA.

But Hager said even though the government is shut down, the funding is for the ACA in protected, and people will still be able to sign up for health insurance on the marketplaces.

“The health insurance marketplaces are open for business,” Hager said to applause from Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and about 50 others in the health care industry. “The administration will not support any efforts to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act.

Hager told the Press Herald after the event that it’s puzzling to see so much opposition to a law that helps people improve their lives.

“It is hard to comprehend how people can be opposed to this law,” Hager said.

Brennan said when he found out he had cancer a few years ago, his insurance kept him financially solvent.

“The care I received, every citizen in portland deserves, and every citizen in the state of Maine deserves,” Brennan said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph