The Obama administration on Monday showed off the federal Web site, Healthcare.gov, where millions of Americans starting Tuesday will be able to buy coverage under President Obama’s health-care law, promising it will be open for business despite congressional battling and widespread reports of computer problems.
People seeking to buy health insurance on the federal marketplace will be able to enter personal information, including their incomes and Social Security numbers; learn how much government assistance they might qualify for, if any; search for plans by price and coverage level; and then purchase a plan directly from the insurance company.
But Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in a briefing with reporters, pleaded for patience, acknowledging there would probably be some glitches in the coming days and weeks as the administration moves forward on the sweeping program known as Obamacare. She likened the inevitable fixes to software updates on Apple products such as the iPhone or iPad.
“No one is calling on Apple to not sell devices for a year or to get out of the business because the whole thing is a failure,” she said. “Everyone just assumes there’s a problem, they’ll fix it, let’s move on. . . . Hopefully, they’ll give us the same slack as they give Apple.”
The briefing came on what Sebelius called “the eve of a new chapter” in U.S. history — the day millions of uninsured Americans would be able to apply for government assistance and buy health insurance under the sweeping health-care law.
Some uninsured people will newly qualify for Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor, which was expanded under the law. Others will get government subsidies to help pay for premiums for private insurance.
The plans available on the marketplace take effect Jan. 1, when the requirement kicks in that every American carry health insurance or face a fine.
For weeks, insurance companies, consultants and others have been warning of flaws in the computer systems running at both the state and federal levels. Sixteen states and the District chose to build their own Web site marketplaces, while 34 states left all or part of the task to the federal government.
Reports of glitches have become fodder for Republican critics of the law, who say the problems underscore why they oppose it. “Everybody here, among Republicans at least, agrees that this is a bad law that needs to be delayed, and the American people agree with that,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Monday on “Fox & Friends.”
Despite reports of problems and delays of key functions as recently as Friday, administration officials on Monday said the federal marketplace was ready, including many of its touted features, including the ability to see which doctors are participating in which plans and to figure out instantly whether a person qualifies for a government subsidy.
People’s experiences are likely to vary from place to place, however. Officials in the District, which built its own marketplace, called D.C. Health Link, have said it could be a month before residents will be able to know what subsidy they might receive. But shoppers will be able to view each plan’s network doctors before choosing a plan.
Residents of Virginia, which opted not to build its own marketplace, will be able to sign up for coverage on the federal site, Healthcare.gov.
Maryland, which was among the earliest states to embrace the health law, also staged a demonstration for reporters Monday to show how people will be able to shop and enroll in a plan on the state’s marketplace, the Maryland Health Connection. Maryland residents will have a more powerful search tool than the one on Healthcare.gov, allowing them to enter the name of a doctor and see a list of plans that include him or her.
“Nobody has that, and it’s a really, really cool thing to be able to do,” said Joshua Sharfstein, Maryland’s health secretary.
But like several other states, Maryland is still trying to work out some technological glitches. As a result, the exchange won’t be collecting payments immediately from people who want to enroll in private insurance plans, he said. Those people will receive an e-mail in a few weeks notifying them when the exchange will be able to take their payment.
Also, some people seeking to enroll online immediately may not be able to do so because the technology that determines their eligibility is not working consistently for certain categories of people. For example, people up to age 26 who were formerly in foster care are eligible to enroll in the expanded Medicaid program and will be able to do so online. But 19-year-olds in this category won’t be able to do so right away because of a glitch.
Very large and complex families also won’t be able to receive immediate online eligibility determinations, nor will nonparent caretakers, Sharfstein said.
“Our feeling is that the majority will be able to go all the way through” the enrollment process for Medicaid and for private insurance, he said.
Currently those applications require reams of paperwork, and many weeks to process. “We’re taking a quantum leap forward with the ease in applying for health insurance,” Sharfstein said.
Residents will be able to browse 45 plans from six different carriers.
On Tuesday, Maryland officials don’t know what will happen. “We’re going to be in sleeves-rolled-up mode,” Sharfstein said.
Brady Dennis contributed to this report.