WASHINGTON — Groups working to help Mainers navigate the Affordable Care Act are reporting steady improvements on the problem-plagued federal website, but said glitches and error messages still occasionally slow the sign-up process.
That mixed bag is the reality that the Obama administration faces this week as it rushes to meet a self-imposed Saturday deadline for ensuring that the vast majority of site visitors will have success using HealthCare.gov.
But federal officials are also treading carefully to avoid inflating expectations, in part out of fear that a flood of users on Dec. 1 could crash the site and create more political headaches surounding the Affordable Care Act.
“November 30th does not represent a relaunch of HealthCare.gov,” Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Wednesday. “It is not a magical date,” and the agency will continue to make improvements “in December and beyond,” Bataille said.
Just 271 Maine residents successfully signed up for health insurance through the online marketplace between Oct. 1 and Nov. 2. Nationwide, 106,185 people selected health insurance plans during the first 33 days, well shy of the 500,000 that administration officials had projected would enroll at first. The majority of those signed up through state-run websites, however, not the federally run website used by residents of Maine and 35 other states.
The Obama administration is only disclosing enrollment figures in monthly batches, with the November numbers expected to be released early next month.
Organizations that help Maine residents sign up for insurance report healthy interest in the program. Crucially, group representatives said they are also having more success signing up interested individuals now that the website is working better.
“In the past couple of weeks, I have seen a significant improvement,” said Jake Grindle, health services navigator at Western Maine Community Action, the agency that received federal funding to inform Mainers and help them sign up for coverage.
Although many sign-ups for new accounts “have been going through without a hitch,” Grindle said some applicants still encounter error messages or get stuck in a “loop” that prevents them from completing an application.
But some of the most problematic applications are among individuals who tried to purchase insurance during the website’s turbulent early days. In such cases, Grindle said he often creates a whole new account for the person.
“And those seem to be going through fine,” he said.
Libby Cummings, who helps people sign up for coverage through her position at Portland Community Health Center, said she’s had nearly 100 percent success recently when handling applications for individuals seeking insurance. Applications involving larger families or some immigrants are more likely to encounter hiccups along the way, Cummings said.
“It is not perfect at this point, but it is certainly working much better than it was several weeks ago,” she said. She still gives a disclaimer at the outset that the enrollment process takes time and sometimes hits technical roadblocks.
“Interest is extremely high,” she said. “Everyone who is coming in is still persevering and looking to get into a plan.”
Individuals have until Dec. 23 to sign up for coverage if they want their policy to take effect Jan. 1. Open enrollment through the marketplace “exchanges” will continue through March 31, 2014, after which uninsured individuals could face a $95 penalty during the first year.
Some have called on the Obama administration to delay that “individual mandate” because of the problems with HealthCare.gov, just as the administration delayed by one year the requirement that businesses with 50 or more employees offer health insurance or pay a penalty.
What happens with the site this weekend and next week will likely dictate whether those cries for additional delays increase or fade.
The Obama administration has said that by Saturday, HealthCare.gov should be able to handle 50,000 users simultaneously. Officials expect that, at times, well above 50,000 users will be logged in, so the administration is attempting to expand capacity.
Bataille, with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the administration regards “success” as site visitors being able to apply for coverage, receive an eligibility determination, shop for a plan and then enroll.
“We are still on track … that by the end of the month, the vast majority of users will be able to go through the site smoothly, certainly more smoothly than they were in October,” Bataille told reporters during an update Wednesday.
Obamacare’s supporters and critics will undoubtedly be watching the site closely this weekend.
Republicans in Congress portray the troubled website as simply the most public manifestation of a law riddled with problems. As further evidence, they cite the cancellation notices sent to millions of policyholders and the Obama administration’s postponement of several key components of the law.
Congressional Democrats, while continuing to defend the law’s intent, are feeling the political pressure.
A bill sponsored by New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, would give people an extra two months to sign up for coverage. The bill has picked up the support of numerous Senate Democrats, including several who, like Shaheen, are likely to field questions about their support for Obamacare during re-election campaigns in 2014.
Concerned about ongoing glitches with the website, Shaheen and six other Democrats also urged Obama this week to appoint a leader to oversee improvements to the website who would report directly to the president, not to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The position should report directly to you and should be empowered with the authority to ensure that HealthCare.gov is fixed quickly, completely and permanently,” the senators wrote.
Among Maine’s delegation, Republican Sen. Susan Collins is the only outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act. Collins has repeatedly called for the law to be repealed or significantly rewritten.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat who is running for Maine governor next year, has said he would support extending the enrollment period if the website’s troubles persist. While not ruling out further delays, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and independent Sen. Angus King have said they prefer to wait to see if the website improves before backing extensions.
Meanwhile, another group helping uninsured or underinsured Mainers sign up for coverage is preparing to ramp up its informational campaign just as the website shows signs of improvement.
Working with a Massachusetts-based firm, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association has been assisting some fishermen and others with navigating the federal website. The organization has seen some improvements, but also urges the people with whom they work to be realistic about the time it takes to choose a health insurance plan, even without website issues, said association Executive Director Patrice McCarron.
Most lobstermen put in long hours on their boats until after Thanksgiving, so the association’s busy season is probably just beginning.
“We anticipated that we would be hearing a lot more from lobstermen come December and then really after the new year rolls around,” McCarron said. “So we sort of lucked out with the website.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: