For some shoppers, buying Obamacare is turning into a marathon


If you don't succeed at first.... (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Welcome to Health Reform Watch, Sarah Kliff’s regular look at how the Affordable Care Act is changing the American health-care system — and being changed by it. You can reach Sarah with questions, comments and suggestions here. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon for the latest edition, and read previous columns here.

Carl Bidleman made his first attempt at buying insurance under the health law at midnight on Tuesday, the moment the marketplaces opened. He couldn't get the site to load and the representative at a call center suggested trying again in the morning.

So he did, at 8 a.m., after walking his dog and brewing a cup of coffee. And again that afternoon. And that evening.

Twenty-one attempts tries and 36 hours later, Bidleman had found the holy grail: Successfully purchasing a health insurance policy.

“I went out right after and got some beer at the store before going back to work,” Bidleman, a 63-year-old video editor in San Francisco. “I had to take a moment and celebrate finally getting this done.”

Ever since the new health insurance marketplaces launched Tuesday, long wait times and frozen screens have plagued potential shoppers, hoping to get a first glimpse of new health options. Health and Human Services say the Web sites are overloaded and have scrambled to increase their capacity by adding new servers and assigning additional engineers to the project.

Many shoppers have thrown in the towel, at least for the foreseeable future. Coverage under the health law doesn't start until Jan. 1, regardless of whether enrollees sign up on Oct. 1 or Dec. 1.

But then there are the marathon shoppers: The intrepid few who have already made upwards of a dozen attempts to buy health insurance coverage, and have no intention of stopping until they succeed.

“Morning, afternoon, evening,” says Brian Morgan, a 31-year-old IT manager from outside St. Louis, of the times he has tried the marketplace. “I’ve tried a few times and gotten to different stages. I’ll probably try to keep doing it once a day.”

“I usually try and log on before bed and it will say the site is overloaded, but it will save your place in line,” says Shara Connors, a 44-year-old Pennsylvania woman who estimates she has made 25 attempts to sign up. “So I leave my computer on overnight, get up at 6 a.m. and see if I’ve gotten any further.

“I’m nothing,” Connors said, “If not persistent.”

Wonkblog's Sarah Kliff explains the exceptions to the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate. (The Washington Post)

The persistent effort is, in a way, unnecessary, given that there's no limit to the amount of sign-ups under Obamacare. But as with the launch of new gadgets or movies, there always a small crowd that sees value in being first.

“If you’re first in line, you’re trying a product where the value isn’t totally clear,” says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. “At the same time, you seem cool to have access to something no one else has. It’s just like when a new restaurant opens. There’s a social cache to be someone who navigated the exchanges.”

For some, gaining that social capital is worth the extreme effort that goes into nabbing early access.

"If you ever look outside the Apple store and see people camped out, or go down to Duke and see people waiting for basketball tickets, it suggests people will undergo a lot of hardship," Berger said. "Is everyone going to do that? No. But for people who want access, they'll be willing."

Some, like Bidleman, consider themselves strong supporters of the health-care law. They saw an early purchase as partially ideological, a way to show the world that people wanted to enroll in the hotly-disputed program.

“We were involved in the Kerry campaign,” Bidleman says of himself and his wife, to describe his politics. “I’ve been waiting for this and once I sign up, the numbers will start to add up. People will start seeing there’s a demand for this.”

Bidleman spent just about two days straight trying to register on his state’s insurance marketplace, checking in on the progress editing a video (incidentally, the video was about a free health clinc in San Francisco.)

“I was literally trying all day,” he says. “I’d be sitting at my editing desk and turn to my personal computer and try again, see how far I would get. I’d think I’m actually going to get through and buy it, and then get an error message.”

Bidle ultimately completed the process early Wednesday afternoon. He purchased a health plan that he estimates is about $700 cheaper than the product he buys now on the individual market.

“You see this again and again, and you’re sort of like Pavlov’s dog, expecting the same thing to happen,” he said. “Then the page loads and you can celebrate, you actually bought this.”

Others, like Jon Tucci, just wanted to get the shopping squared away as soon as possible.

“I’m an advance guy,” says the 60-year-old West Virginia resident who logged onto HealthCare.Gov at midnight on Tuesday. “I like to get things done early.

Tucci spent about an hour trying to enroll but couldn’t get past a log-in screen, and gave up around 1 a.m. He was back at it five hours later, waking up at 6 a.m. to try and sign up before work. After a 45-minute call to the customer service center got disconnected, he gave up and headed to work.

Wednesday, Tucci was back at it. “I tried yesterday about 10 a.m. and then I tried about 2 p.m. and then about 8 p.m.,” he says. “I get the message that everybody else gets: Please be patient.”

Opponents of the health law also found themselves playing the waiting game. That includes Anthony D. Wilson, a self-described conservative who thinks there isn’t much government can do better than private industry.

Still, he figures that “the government doesn’t undo much once they jump into something. We have to live with it and make the best of it what we can.”

So early on Tuesday, the 55-year-old engineer in Indiana logged on to Healthcare.gov in hopes of getting a glimpse of what he might have to pay next year for under the law. No luck. He tried again every few hours Tuesday, and again on Wednesday morning after checking his e-mail for the first time of the day, and again later when he had a break in the work day.

Each time, he got hung up when the system said to hold tight and keep the page open lest he lose his place in line. At least once, he kept the page open for more than two hours before getting an error message indicating that the attempt had failed.

He guesses he’s tried getting on about 20 times since Tuesday morning, including at least twice Wednesday. He isn’t frustrated – yet. “It’s kind of comical at this point. I just try it, and laugh, and go on.”

With reporting from Sandhya Somashekhar

KLIFF NOTES: Top health policy reads from around the Web.

Millions of poor Americans will be left uncovered by the health law. "A sweeping national effort to extend health coverage to millions of Americans will leave out two-thirds of the poor blacks and single mothers and more than half of the low-wage workers who do not have insurance, the very kinds of people that the program was intended to help, according to an analysis of census data by The New York Times." Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff in the New York Times.

Here's why its so difficult to get Obamacare's exchanges to work. An excellent interview from the Switch's Tim Lee, on why the marketplaces are having so many problems.

Meet an early Obamacare enrollee. "Leslie Foster, a 28-year-old freelance filmmaker in Hollywood, is among the first to sign up for an insurance plan. After spending several hours browsing the California insurance "exchange" late Tuesday night—when traffic was lower and the online marketplace operated more smoothly—Mr. Foster made his choice at about 10 a.m. Wednesday." Christopher Weaver in the Wall Street Journal.

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