Stephen Costanza of Portland crossed his fingers and waited for the result of his last click on the famously faulty healthcare.gov, the last step he had to complete to get health insurance for 2014 through the Affordable Care Act.
“The wind must have been blowing in the right direction and Tinkerbell must have flown by, because it worked,” Costanza said, laughing.
From Oct. 1, when enrollment started, through Nov. 2, just 271 Mainers successfully signed up for coverage through the health insurance marketplace, according to data released this week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But Costanza, 53, and others who have been signing up could be on the leading edge of a new chapter in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Some users of healthcare.gov say it might finally be starting to work.
In recent days, the website’s performance has improved enough to enable more people to sign up for insurance, numerous sources said Thursday and Friday.
The website has been plagued by glitches and crashes since its launch. In the 36 states where consumers must rely on the federal system, including Maine, only 26,794 people had navigated their way through the website to select insurance plans as of Nov. 2. The success rate was far higher in the states that opted to create their own online insurance marketplaces.
No more recent enrollment data is available.
President Obama and Democrats in Congress have been under intense pressure to improve healthcare.gov, and Republicans have lambasted the website, pointing to it as another example of government incompetence.
In October, The New York Times reported that 5 million lines of computer code had to be rewritten for healthcare.gov to work.
In Maine, several of the “navigators” who have been hired with federal money to help consumers sign up for insurance said they have been able to click through all of the website’s pages in the past week – for the first time.
“Every single person I tried to sign up this week, I’ve been able to sign up,” said Jake Grindle, a navigator with Western Maine Community Action in Wilton. “There has been a dramatic improvement just this week.”
Federal officials have set a goal for the website to be working properly by Nov. 30. If it ends up working smoothly, about 50,000 to 75,000 Mainers are expected to sign up for subsidized benefits through the health insurance marketplace, according to Consumers for Affordable Health Care, a group that advocates for access to health insurance.
The marketplace is a key component of the Affordable Care Act, closing coverage gaps for self-employed and part-time workers who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid benefits and can’t get coverage through an employer.
Libby Cummings, who helps people sign up for coverage at the Portland Community Health Center, said she had some success this week, although not every time she tried.
“Just in the last two to three days, it’s started to work,” said Cummings, who has mostly submitted paper applications to the federal government over the past six weeks because the website hasn’t worked.
Along with some navigators, several Maine residents said this week that they got all the way through the enrollment process and now have insurance for 2014.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Ed Saxby of Cape Elizabeth, who spent 90 minutes with his wife signing up for coverage last weekend.
Kevin Lewis of Maine Community Health Options, one of two providers of insurance through the marketplace in Maine, said he’s not surprised by reports that healthcare.gov is starting to work better, given that it’s a top priority of the Obama administration.
Some users of the website aren’t yet reporting success.
“We have not been able to get through the whole process,” said Karen Turgeon, who oversees navigators at the Portland-based Opportunity Alliance.
Turgeon said she has heard reports from other navigators in Maine who have been able to enroll consumers through healthcare.gov, but has not seen the improvements herself.
Max Lynds, vice president of life and benefits for Houlton-based F.A. Peabody, said the insurance agency has in most cases been unable to help people sign up for insurance on the marketplace because of problems with the website.
“It’s frustrating, because we’re not able to help people do what they want to do,” he said. “We just can’t help anybody.”
Lynds said he, too, has heard reports that the site is starting to improve, but has not experienced it.
In Portland, Costanza, a children’s book illustrator who also works part-time jobs to make ends meet, selected an insurance plan Tuesday, after being unable to navigate through the website in an earlier try. Now, he said, he will have insurance for the first time in several years.
“I feel healthy, but I’m getting older and I had to really start getting serious about my health,” said Costanza, who has gone to the doctor and the dentist only occasionally over the past five years.
Costanza, who earns about $21,000 a year, said it will be difficult to pay the $128 monthly premiums, but he wouldn’t have been able to afford any insurance without the subsidy he got through the marketplace.
Costanza said he attended a seminar this fall and was surprised to learn that he could afford benefits.
“I had just given up. I was all set to pay the penalty” that the uninsured will pay under the Affordable Care Act, Costanza said. “It feels great to have insurance, to have that security.”
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: