Health websites overwhelmed on first day

Uninsured Washington adults got their first chance to shop online for health insurance Tuesday, but after months of preparation, there were glitches.

The state’s online health insurance shopping site, which launched at 7:30 a.m., was shut down for about five hours. There had been problems with long wait times to get information or to fill out online applications.

Similar problems were experienced across the nation Tuesday. Both federal and state websites where people could get information or sign up for health care were struggling to handle the high amounts of online traffic.

More than 4,000 people called the state’s toll-free hotline Tuesday, where consumers can get their questions answered. However, they could not sign up for insurance until the state’s website reopened.

Repairs were scheduled on the site overnight. “We’re hoping for a better experience for customers on Wednesday,” said Bethany Frey, a spokeswoman for the state insurance site, Washington Healthplanfinder.

Some events did go off as planned. This included the work of employees of Within Reach, a Seattle nonprofit that is helping to provide information about health insurance sign-ups in Snohomish County.

On Tuesday, three of the organization’s employees were at the Edmonds United Methodist Church, home to the city’s food bank and where people can get basic health care provided by volunteers of the Puget Sound Christian Clinic.

Within Reach employees answered questions and made appointments for one-on-one meetings to help people sign up for health insurance.

There’s a lot of confusion about what choices people have and what they need to do, said Mira Hattal, a Within Reach employee.

“We’re providing a lot of basic nuts and bolts information and debunking some of the myths out there,” she said.

For example, some people have said they feared they could face jail time if they didn’t sign up for health insurance, Hattal said. There’s no such penalty in the federal health care law, commonly known as Obamacare. But people without health insurance will face a tax penalty next year of $95 per adult and up to $285 per family.

Hattal and her coworkers are helping people figure out whether they qualify for Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program, or for tax credits to help them buy individual insurance plans.

They’re also providing estimates of what people will pay to buy individual health insurance. Those rates are based on household income and the specific type of health insurance people are buying.

Individual health insurance plans being sold in Washington typically pay 60 percent to 80 percent of health care costs. The monthly cost of insurance increases as the plans pick up bigger percentages of the bill.

Adults currently on Medicaid are surprised to find that starting next year, they will be able to get dental care, Hattal said. Until now, it’s been difficult to find dentists who take Medicaid patients because of the low rates the government pays to care for these patients.

Hattal said one of her messages is that despite all the media attention this week about signing up for health insurance, consumers have time to consider their choices.

Sign-ups continue through Dec. 15 for health insurance that begins on Jan. 1.

“They don’t need to get enrolled today,” she said. “They have months to enroll.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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