Regional
3:54 pm
Tue October 1, 2013

Healthcare Exchange Off to Rocky Start in Wisconsin

Consumers and advocates reported widespread problems on the opening day of Wisconsin’s new health care exchange.

The federal government is operating Wisconsin’s site because Gov. Walker did not want to create or manage it. We spoke with several people Tuesday who tried to navigate the exchange and failed.

Carolyn Mello was eager Tuesday morning to check out her insurance options. The Milwaukee woman says she’s been uninsured since she was booted off BadgerCare when her daughter turned 19. Mello says she hasn’t been able to afford private coverage.

“I’ve been just going to free sites to get things like mammograms and other yearly checkups, but I don’t have anything in case I get hurt for instance,” Mello says.

So Mello wasted no time Tuesday logging on to the new exchange, hoping to find an affordable option.

“Well, I went on pretty early in the day, at 9 a.m. and at first I was asked to wait to get into the login for the site, this is healthcare.gov,” Mello says.

After several minutes, Mello was able to start the process of creating an account.

“But then when I got to the security questions, there were no security questions,” Mello says.

You know that little drop menu that gives you options for security questions? Mello says those menus were blank, so she couldn’t continue. She started the process over, and the same thing happened.

“I’ve been on the site now for almost three hours and they still have no security questions posted and I am still unable to create an account,” Mello says.

Mello wasn’t alone. Consumers throughout Wisconsin reported glitches and long waits on the online exchange.

“It’s really frustrating. I know we’ve had a couple patients who have definitely been upset about it,” Mello says.

Sarah Bailey is a spokesperson for Progressive Community Health Centers in Milwaukee. The agency had scheduled several appointments Tuesday to help patients with no insurance navigate the new site. But Bailey says it was down all morning, and the federal government did not provide any information about what was causing the problems or when the site might be fixed. She wondered whether the government shutdown was a factor.

“Maybe they just don’t have enough staff right now. I think they’re just getting a huge volume of applications and they’re just not…I really couldn’t tell you what is going on,” Bailey says.

Bailey says staff helped patients who could not log onto the exchange establish email accounts to use when the site was operational again.

“Because in order to log in with healthcare.gov you do have to have an email account, like through Yahoo or Gmail. Many of our patients don’t have access to computers so they’ve never had an email account before. So we’ve at least helped them get an email account so that that part of the process can be done and then we’ve asked them to reschedule and come back at a later date,” Bailey says.

In Milwaukee, the city health department also intended to help people sift through insurance plans on first day of the new exchange. Jessica Gathirimu is director of family and community health for the department. She says a few dozen people showed up at the city’s three health centers Tuesday morning, but no one was able to get through the entire login process.

“And the overall feeling has been that people have been very understanding. They’ve been very patient. We haven’t had any comments or complaints that have been negative in tone,” Gathirimu says.

Gathirimu says the department took down contact information for those who could not enroll, and promised to get in touch when the site was working.

Carolyn Mello, the Milwaukee woman who tried for three hours to create an account on the exchange, says she plans to keep at it.

“It’s a common experience for people who have to go through the state or the federal process to get something like health care. They have to wait and wait and wait and wait and wait,” Mello says.

Mello and everyone else hoping to purchase insurance through the exchange have until December 15 to pick a plan and pay the premium, in order for coverage to start on January 1.