State health exchange still debugging problems

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SEATTLE (AP) — Washington’s new health insurance marketplace is fully functional, but three weeks after the web-based application’s shaky launch, technicians are still fixing problems almost daily.

While Washington Healthplanfinder hasn’t left all its errors and glitches behind, thousands are signing up for health insurance each week and the program has moved from startup to maintenance, said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which runs the website, a call center and outreach efforts across the state.

After trying to sign up during the first few days of October and failing, William Towey logged back in a few days later and had health insurance in under 30 minutes.

On Jan. 1, the 48-year-old, self-employed handyman will be covered by health insurance for the first time in a decade.

“I’ve got a reasonably secure, modest lifestyle,” Towey said. “I don’t have a lot but I feel like I’ve made progress over the years, but I’m in no position to deal with a large medical bill.”

Towey said he shopped for health insurance about a year ago but gave up when he found it would have cost between $400 and $500 a month. The plan he signed up for this month will cost about half that amount.

Marchand said the biggest problems keeping people from using the website during its first days were:

  • Communication problems between the state site and federal government;
  • Choke points where a lot of data was being uploaded by a lot of people at the same time;
  • People entering the wrong kind of information or in the wrong format or using characters the program couldn’t read, such as ampersands.

Some of those issues were fixed in the first few days; others have required an ongoing process of responding to error reports, complaints to the call center and comments on social media, Marchand said. Helpful hints also have been imbedded into the site now, reminding users to do certain things.

Volumes at the call center have been many times greater than expected, in part because of all the error messages on the website. The call center, where people can ask for help or can set up their account and shop for insurance with help from a real person, was staffed to answer about 2,500 calls a day, but the reality has been an average of 6,000 calls a day and up to 10,000 on some days.

The exchange is hiring about 80 additional people for the call center to decrease wait times, as call volume is expected to remain high through December.

About 35,000 Washington residents have signed up for insurance through the exchange since it opened on Oct. 1. Another 56,000 people have completed online applications for insurance but won’t officially be signed up until they pay the insurance company. Those payments are due in December for coverage that begins in January.

Another 20,000 have created an account on the website but have not signed up for insurance. Nearly 300,000 more have taken a look at the site but haven’t registered.

Before health care reform went into effect, an estimated 1 million Washington residents did not have health insurance.

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