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Exchange Officials Report Few Bumps at Start of Health Law Enrollment

By John Reichard, CQ Roll Call Editor

November 17, 2014 -- Federal and state health insurance exchange officials said last week that individuals at the opening of the health law's second open enrollment period were able to log on, shop for plans, and complete applications.

A total of 23,000 visitors to the federal website submitted an application in the first eight hours of the enrollment period, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Last year, only about half a dozen people were able to submit an application on the glitch-filled first day of the open enrollment period. Despite nightmarish technical difficulties at both the federal and state marketplaces, more than 7 million people signed up and pay for health coverage, exceeding Congressional Budget Office projections.

Volume picked up over the weekend. "Yesterday, we had 100,000 folks submit their new applications," HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said on Sunday. "And there were over 500,000 people who logged in effectively yesterday as well. So I think the vast majority of people coming to the site were able to get on and do what they were intending to do."

Over the weekend, more 1 million people visited the site, HHS said.

Massachusetts state officials said that some 5,000 people were able to use the Bay State's portal to enroll in Medicaid, a step that meant their coverage began immediately. "Throughout the entire weekend we saw excellent performance of the system," a state official told a telephone press briefing early last week.

Blue state exchanges performed miserably during the first open enrollment period, despite a strong commitment to the health law from political leaders and millions of dollars in federal grants to get them started. That wasn't the case at the start of year two.

Overall, the Massachusetts Health Insurance Exchange website determined that 11,920 individuals and families were eligible for insurance under the law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), the state said in a recent press release.

"Over the weekend, the revamped Exchange attracted a total of 57,208 visitors and enrolled 4,948 into immediate ACA-compliant MassHealth [Medicaid] coverage in real-time, a function last year's website was never able to complete," according to the state. "The remaining 6,972 individuals and families were successfully determined eligible for Health Connector insurance plans." Health Connector is the part of the exchange offering private coverage.

Washington State, however, was forced to shut down its exchange shortly after it opened. Its website was taken offline to resolve a problem in which 2015 tax credit amounts were being incorrectly calculated, according to news reports. The site reopened appeared to be operating afternoon a day later.

The opening weekend metrics gave officials something to talk about but did not foretell whether the second enrollment period would prove successful.

To maintain their coverage without interruption, individuals must submit their applications by Dec. 15, which means the volume of renewal applications is likely to expand dramatically. Early February is another key barometer, with open enrollment ending at the middle of the month—three months shorter than the first open enrollment, which lasted six months.

The upbeat talk doesn't mean big technical problems won't yet materialize.

"We think the vast majority were able to" get into their accounts, Burwell said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Some people forget their user names. Some people are renewing their passwords and other things. If there are any other technical problems, our customer service folks are ready and able to help people. There were over 100,000 calls yesterday."

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