Ihab Issa lost count of the number of times he's tried to buy insurance through HealthCare.gov weeks ago, although he knows it's likely somewhere in the triple digits.
The 48-year-old in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who works in a psychotherapy office, started logging into the Web site when it launched in October. Since then, he has faithfully visited the site once or twice a day, only to find a different obstacle.
"Early on it would think my daughter was my wife, or it would think my wife was my sister," said Issa, who was shopping for a family policy. "At one point I was getting stopped at the end. I couldn't click on the button that said, 'see what's available.' It would get bogged down."
This made it all the more surprising for Issa that, when he sat down at his computer Dec. 1 — after 61 days of trying to buy insurance — the system actually worked.
"I was thrilled," Issa says. "I had to be at work, but I just wanted to sit there and look at all the different options."
The White House announced early Sunday that most HealthCare.gov shoppers should be able to have an experience like Issa's. As of Dec.1, the Obama administration believes the HealthCare.gov should work smoothly for the "vast majority of users."
Interviews with shoppers over the past two days show a system working better than it has in recent weeks, although one where some consumers still face difficult obstacles. These types of interviews, while not a perfect measure of success, are arguably one of the better ways to gauge what type of experience shoppers are having online right now.
As Jeff Zients explained on a press call Sunday, HealthCare.gov is now using a queuing system when more than 50,000 users want to access the site at once. Shoppers have the option to leave their e-mail address and get a note when there is open capacity. When they return, they are supposed to be moved to the front of the queue.
Kathy Coombs, 61, of Alexandria has been trying to see the results of her application, including what she thinks will be a hefty subsidy. Coombs was one of the lucky few who logged on to the site on the first day, created an account, put in her information and received an e-mail back saying her results had been processed.
“I was so excited about it, I’m a huge liberal and big proponent of all this, and as a recent widow, I could really benefit,” she said. Her income is well below $45,000. But since then, she has been unable to “view results” to see her private insurance options with the amount of subsidy included.
She tried Monday at 1:30 p.m., but because of heavy volume on the site, she got a notice saying too many people were logged on and to try later. “It moved much more quickly,” she said Monday, “but I still hit a dead end.”
Others had more success shopping during the weekend, when traffic was lighter. Tom Marchetti, a 41-year-old pizzeria owner from Freeland, Pa., successfully enrolled in coverage Sunday after months of failed attempts.
"It almost got comical," Marchetti says. "I follow a bunch of reporters online, and you'd see them say something about a new fix, so I figured I'd try. You'd go on, it'd be the same, and then you'd wait a couple of days."
When he logged on Sunday, he noticed a new button that allowed him to delete his pending application. He breezed through a new application in less than an hour, purchasing a policy that he says is comparable in price and coverage to the plan he currently buys in the individual market.
Still, Marchetti isn't totally sure he's in the clear: While the HealthCare.gov Web site listed his maximum cost-sharing as $175, the insurance company says that the number is $3,500. It's possible that Marchetti qualifies for a cost-sharing subsidy , but he's trying to reach his new insurance plan to figure out the discrepancy.
"If it turns out to be $3,500, I'm going to be upset," he says. "I have seen stories in the news of people getting signed up for something they didn't mean to."
Others, though, are just as stuck today as they were in the past. One persistent issue that has turned up in many e-mails and interviews is difficulty with the identity verification process, where HealthCare.gov tries to make sure you are the person you say you are.
Kelly Weaver, a substitute teacher in Michigan, said her application has been stuck in the identity verification process since mid-October.
"I don't know what they're fixing," says Weaver, who considers herself a health-law supporter. "I'm definitely noticing different fonts but that doesn't really fix my situation."
Weaver has submitted identity verification information online and over the phone. She has uploaded copies of her driver's license to the Web site. When she's called the customer service center, she's twice been told she'll receive a call back in two to five business days. Both times, she never got a return phone call.
"I don't know what to do next," Weaver says. "When I talk to them on the phone, they say we'll have to get back to you. But its really, 'we're getting you off the phone because other people are waiting in the queue.' "
Once shoppers exit HealthCare.gov, two I spoke with ran into a new problem: Actually paying for their insurance policy. Both Issa in Florida and another shopper in Texas selected plans with Humana. When they were transferred to the company's Web site, both ran into technical problems submitting their first month's premium payment.
"I called them up and they said we're having problems with the Web site," Issa said. "So I selected a plan, but I don't know if I'm considered enrolled or not."
The Texas shopper, 61-year-old Victor Avila, got a step further: He reached Humana by phone shortly after we spoke, and paid his premium over the phone.
"I was able to pay my first payment over the phone with a credit card because their system that takes bank information was down," he wrote in an e-mail. "Oh, the irony."
With reporting from Lena H. Sun
KLIFF NOTES: Top health policy reads from around the Web.
Health insurers say HealthCare.gov is still flawed. "The issues are vexing and complex. Some insurers say they have been deluged with phone calls from people who believe they have signed up for a particular health plan, only to find that the company has no record of the enrollment. Others say information they received about new enrollees was inaccurate or incomplete, so they had to track down additional data — a laborious task that will not be feasible if data is missing for tens of thousands of consumers." Robert Pear and Reed Abelson in the New York Times.
Oregon's exchange is still struggling. "About 400 newly hired workers in Salem are processing paper applications by the thousands for health insurance under President Obama's law. They review each 19-page application, calculate eligibility for tax subsidies, and then mail back a packet of each consumer's options — which the customers must mail back to complete the sign-up process." Maeve Reston in the Los Angeles Times.