It’s hard to sign up for Obamacare. It’s much worse to be uninsured.

December 5, 2013
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
(David McNew/Getty Images)

As a reporter who has covered the Affordable Care Act, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to uninsured Americans. Aside from the daily federal updates and traffic statistics, it’s been one of the more helpful ways to understand how the health-care law is working — and what its rocky rollout will mean.

And what I've learned from all those discussions is this: The people shopping on HealthCare.gov are incredibly, unwaveringly persistent in their attempts to purchase coverage.

This is something that has become clear to me in my most recent interviews, talking to people who have now spent two months trying to buy insurance coverage. These are the people who have made upwards of 100 attempts at buying insurance coverage.

They're the ones trying the Web site at different times of day and in different Internet browsers. Some incorporate it into their daily routines; logging on to HealthCare.gov has become the first thing they do when they wake up, the last thing they do before falling asleep.

They are frustrated, especially those who supported the health-care overhaul. But they are not quitting. I have not yet found a HealthCare.gov shopper who has thrown up his hands and said: “I’m done with this. I’ll pay the penalty for going uninsured instead.”

Instead, I find a lot of people who say, “I'll keep trying” and “I'll log onto the Web site again, and let you know how it works.”

I wanted to know if this just happened to be the people I’ve found; perhaps there’s a world of quitters out there I’ve missed. So I asked Mike Perry and Tresa Undem, the two pollsters behind PerryUndem Research, whether they had found this person, the guy who gave up. They, out of anyone, would know: The pair has spent the past two weeks criss-crossing the country, conducting focus groups with uninsured people for health-care foundations.

“We haven’t found that person,” Perry told me. He does see uninsured people who get creative, like one man who Googled around to find the Kaiser Family Foundation subsidy calculator when the Web site couldn’t give him an answer on financial assistance. Another went directly to insurance company Web sites to check out premiums, to get a sense of what they might expect to pay.

“It’s almost been irrelevant,” Perry says. “Every single person we’ve talked to who has gone to the site and hasn’t gotten their issue resolved are going to go back the next week, or the week after that.”

This includes shoppers like Tom Marchetti, a 41-year-old pizzeria owner who spent weeks trying to sign up. When it didn't work, he tried again.

“It’s almost comical,” Marchetti says. “You see a new fix in the news, and you try. So you go on, and it's the same. And then you wait a couple of days.”

Then there's  Kelly Weaver, 48, a substitute teacher in Michigan who has spent two months trying to sign up.

“I do have health concerns and I can’t go to a doctor,” Weaver says. “I was really excited in the first part of October, but then there were all the problems getting onto the site.”

To describe Weaver as frustrated would be an understatement. She made $7,000 last year and is nearly certain she will qualify for Medicaid. But she keeps running into hurdles enrolling. Right now she is stuck in the identity verification step, after calling a phone center twice about the issue and uploading personal documents like her driver’s license to the Web site.

Weaver doesn’t really know what her next step is. She might try to send paper copies of her documents in, although she finds that step worrying. What she does know, though, is that there is a next step — and she has no  intention of giving up.

“I’ve tried three methods and now there’s a fourth method of mailing in paper copies,” she says. “I’m not all that enthused about mailing a copy of my driver’s license, but I guess that’s that.”

Interviews with people like Weaver changed the way that I think about the health-care law’s initially rocky rollout, and whether it will depress health law enrollment.

They've led me to see the terrible launch as a less important factor. The people who want health insurance, and find it affordable, will sign up. They might do it a few months later than initially planned. They might make 100 shopping attempts instead of just one.

Perry thinks the key decision point will happen when shoppers see the prices, not when they encounter a glitchy Web site. If shoppers think the price is right, the glitchy Web site isn’t likely to matter that much. And if they find prices outrageous, its not the terrible launch that stopped them from buying.

I asked Perry why he thought neither of us were finding any quitters.

“I think it’s because being uninsured sucks,” he responded. It sucks enough for shoppers to make HealthCare.gov part of their daily routine, hoping that the site that didn’t work in the past will work for them another day.

“Even with all the bad media, it sucks to be uninsured,” Perry says. “For someone in a tight financial situation, this could improve their lives.”

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