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Glitches Slow Health Exchange Sign-ups


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Officials are asking for patience from the public in the opening week of state health care exchanges. People across the country were supposed to get the chance to begin signing up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. But the online system has been overloaded since October 1st when the exchanges opened.

Even at the end of the week, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports that health care assistance in Georgia was still stymied.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: The launch of Georgia's health care exchange began with a great deal of optimism at the East Point Public Library, just south of Atlanta. The chair of the Fulton County Commission, John Eaves, stressed that despite the federal government's shutdown, the exchanges would be open.

JOHN EAVES: Residents of this country have now a right to health insurance, access to health care.

LOHR: About 22 million Americans are uninsured and eligible for the exchanges. More than 1.8 million live in Georgia and it's that group that federal officials and new health care navigators want to reach. Navigators are the hands-on experts who were supposed to walk people through the system.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How long does the sign-up process take?

MARCUS JORDAN: We're trying to - fingers crossed. Hopefully it goes, it works, so we'll see...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thirty minutes, do you think? OK.

LOHR: Marcus Jordan is one of the few navigators working in Georgia this week. Many are still finished their training, but to even look at online options you have to create an account first and on opening day navigators and prospective insurance buyers ran into big problems as computers froze.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So, do I skip this?

JORDAN: It won't let you see it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So, we're stuck here?

JORDAN: We're stuck here. That's the glitch right here; step three.

LOHR: Tran Nguyen sits at a computer with Jordan, who tries to create an account for her. Nguyen works at a coffee shop at the airport. She says she pays a huge sum, more than $1500 a month for private insurance for herself and her mother who's in her 60s. She's worried about how she'll keep paying for the coverage but says it's essential.

TRAN NGUYEN: As she's getting older, in her older years, if something happens to her I want her to be able to get proper health care.

LOHR: Nguyen wants a more affordable option, but she wasn't able to create an account. She says she'll keep trying. Marcus Jordan, who works with Enroll America, says computer glitches at the website didn't get any better. The phone lines and an online chat system were all overloaded.

JORDAN: The three means of communication are not working today.

LOHR: According to the federal government, 8.6 million people tried to access the website since Tuesday and the call center received more than 400,000 calls. In a statement, a spokeswoman says experts are working to improve and expand the system. Federal officials say the demand is higher than expected, but there's no word yet on how many people have actually signed up.

By yesterday, health care navigators in Georgia had hoped the system would improve, but as Marcus Jordan tried to create an account for the sixth time in an hour, he got the same frustrating message.

JORDAN: Same error message. Try it again. And it says your account could not be created this time, system is unavailable.

LOHR: What was supposed to be a streamlined process to show people their health care options and prices is now a tedious one. Once he thought he got through as the site said it was processing his account, but then he got another error message. It said: Oops, you didn't check your email in time.

JORDAN: I keep on being optimistic and hopefully keep fingers crossed one more day, one more day, but I'm going to definitely try, like, off-peak hours, like I might get up two o'clock in the morning and try and see, something like that, until I can get through, and go from there.

LOHR: Navigators are planning outreach events this month at drug stores, churches and libraries. Jordan says he'll offer as much help as he can about what people can expect when they can log in. And he says there's time. Open enrollment continues for six months. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.
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