It is a slow and labor-intensive substitute for what was supposed to be a snappy online application, similar to Amazon or Travelocity. But faced with a flood of people eager to get health benefits for the first time, what had been considered Plan B has become the plan — at least until the sites are operating more reliably, according to consumer guides and community groups.
It is one way the frustrating, persistent glitches on some state Web sites as well as the main federal portal serving 36 states have had a ripple effect around the country. Community groups, insurers and consumers have been forced to adjust their strategy on the health-care law, which entered a critical period Oct. 1 with the opening of the health insurance “marketplaces,” also known as exchanges.
Insurance companies are steering people to their own Web sites, promising a smoother experience than healthcare.gov. Advocacy groups that planned to encourage people to enroll this month are also holding back, treating this period as an educational time instead.
In the case of the paper applications, the work-around could have significant consequences. Processing paper is likely to create more delays and will further complicate a process that was supposed to be one-stop shopping.
“We have gotten a few [applications] in — by persevering,” Carol Jameson, associate chief executive officer for HealthWorks of Northern Virginia, said in an e-mail Friday. The nonprofit group operates health centers in Herndon, Sterling and Leesburg serving nearly 10,000 low-income patients. On Wednesday, a counselor was able to submit an application, “but it took four hours because the system kept shutting down,” Jameson wrote. Virginia is one of the states relying on the federal exchange.
The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, requires most Americans to have health insurance starting Jan. 1 or face a fine. Initial open enrollment extends through March 31; the earliest coverage can begin is Jan. 1, as long as consumers sign up by mid-December.
But community groups and others working on enrollment have been dismayed at the severity of the problems on the federal exchange and on some exchanges run by states themselves.
Officials have declined to release enrollment data for the federal exchange. They have said they can handle applications that come in through their call center, online and by mail. Online bottlenecks are greatly reduced, and call center wait times are down from minutes to seconds, they said. In the first 10 days of operation, the federal Web site has received 14.6 million unique visits, officials said.
But getting online has been hard, even for special consumer guides known as “navigators” whose job is to sign people up for coverage. When navigators can’t enroll consumers online, they offer a choice: Come back another day or apply on paper. Many people choose paper.