After going six months without health insurance, Mohammad Goni walked into Mary’s Center in Petworth ready to enroll his family for benefits on the opening day of health insurance exchanges under Obamacare.
Goni took the day off from his work as a pizza cook, prepared to fill out applications and navigate bureaucracy at the federally funded health center with his wife, Razia, and their 10-month-old and 21-month-old children in tow.
He started talking to staff members at Mary’s Center at 10:30 a.m.
“I need it for my babies,” Goni said. “Work is good, but it is not paying so much” to buy insurance.
The family is generally in good health but needs “checkups and shots,” he said, his toddler on his hip and his 10-month-old in a stroller.
The “assisters” had initially suggested that he schedule an appointment to enroll with them after shopping around online. Expecting a crush of activity jamming health-exchange sites in the first few weeks, the “assisters” and “navigators” at Mary’s Center planned to spend the first month on outreach and education instead of pushing enrollment. But the Gonis insisted on enrolling right away.
So assister Betel Aklilu ushered the family into a nearby room to start filling out forms online.
And then the technical problems started.
Goni had trouble finding his way around the site without Aklilu’s help. And there were technical glitches. The application asked questions, but the boxes and buttons to make selections didn’t always appear. The Web site also lagged or was slow to load.
It turns out that Aklilu had trouble verifying Goni’s identity and address because of his immigration status — he is applying for citizenship — so they called the D.C. Health Link customer service number that appeared on the screen.
It took about 20 minutes to get a representative on the line. Goni bounced his toddler on his knee while his wife pushed the stroller around the room to keep the baby from fussing. Other staff members at Mary’s Center popped in and out of the room, trying to aid Aklilu.
Goni and Aklilu finally connected with someone on the phone, but Goni learned 30 minutes later that he would have to enroll in a completely different system through the D.C. Healthcare Alliance, a public insurance program for low-income D.C. residents, regardless of immigration status, who are not eligible for Medicaid.
Goni, who is from Bangladesh, decided that he would take care of his enrollment another day and moved on to enrolling Razia and his daughters, all U.S. citizens, for Medicaid.
Goni and Aklilu spent nearly an hour entering data for the rest of the family.
And then, it happened: The system erased all of Goni’s information.
The system kept refreshing the Web page, making all of the data that was input disappear. Goni and Aklilu tried a couple more times before giving up for the day.
“I’m so sorry,” Aklilu said.
They decided that it would be best to try again when the system wasn’t so overburdened and the glitches were fixed.
“Sorry about that,” Aklilu told the Goni family again as the kids were rounded up. It was about 12:40 p.m., more than two hours since the Gonis walked into Mary’s Center.
“It’s okay,” Mohammad Goni said afterward, grateful for Aklilu’s help.
Aklilu said she is optimistic that the District will work out kinks in the online system so that more families can enroll in the coming months. But the Goni family’s experience was telling.
“The system is being overwhelmed right now,” Aklilu said. “Seeing it firsthand made me realize how vital the assisters and the navigators are going to be.”
Despite taking the time off work and spending hours filling out paperwork, Goni said he wasn’t disappointed with the day’s outcome. He was happy to have spent the time at Mary’s Center because it gave him the opportunity to understand the health insurance options available to his family.
“We are going to come back next month,” Goni said. “They told me they will be prepared.”