A few Alaskans manage to sign up for health insurance on federal website

thanlon@adn.comOctober 17, 2013 

A handful of Alaskans have officially signed up for health insurance through the online marketplace this week, the first reported since the website launched on Oct. 1.

A series of technical glitches have left many individuals in the state barred from creating accounts altogether or locked out of viewing the list of insurance plans once signed in on the federally run healthcare.gov. But on Monday and Tuesday afternoon, the portal worked for two people in the offices at Enroll Alaska who were able to enroll. Cherise Fowler, an outreach and enrollment coordinator with the Alaska Primary Care Association, said Thursday that the 25 community health centers across the state have reported five people signed up for health insurance that will begin Jan. 1.

"We're still up against a wall with the website malfunction," she said.

These numbers don't account for the people who bypass the certified counselors and navigators trained to help people sign up in the marketplace and enroll on their own.

From a business standpoint, the reported numbers are not what Enroll Alaska was expecting more than two weeks into the website's unveiling.

"Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," Tyann Boling, chief operating officer of Enroll Alaska, said about the marketplace.

For Boling, the glitches are hard on business.

"Our business modeling was built on the marketplace ... functioning in October, and it is definitely not functioning to the capacity we had hoped for," she said.

Enroll Alaska is a division of Northrim Benefits Group that was launched as brokerage to focus on the individual marketplace. It receives commission from health insurance companies based on enrollment numbers. As of Wednesday, that number is two. There were 25 agents hired just to help people sign up for insurance.

"With the amount that we're trying, two is unfortunate," she said. "It's better than nothing. However, our hopes were to be enrolling 100 to 200 people a day."

The interest in the marketplace is there, she said. But, the site's inability to handle a high capacity of users has left Enroll Alaska with a list of more than 1,500 Alaskans who want to sign up.

"It's just that the marketplace isn't working," Boling said.

It's not just Alaska.

In the more than 30 states where the federal government is running all or part of the health insurance marketplace, similar software stalls and glitches have been reported. Where the state is running the marketplaces, some places like California have reported enrolling tens of thousands of consumers, while Maryland has had to take down its marketplace periodically for repair, according to news reports.

Joan Fischer, a navigator with United Way, said she has yet to successfully enroll anyone in the marketplace.

Over at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, the number of enrolled Alaskans remains at zero, said Jon Zasada, development and marketing director.

In the first eight days, the center recorded over 90 calls and in-person visits about the marketplace, but no one could sign up. Since then, he said numbers have waned down to about six or eight people a day.

"It can be painfully slow," Zasada said about the online enrollment process.

Zasada and the center's other two certified counselors are advising people to wait on signing up until the system smooths.

"If folks are willing to hold off, we'd rather not throw nails into what could be a difficult bureaucracy," he said.

Under the Affordable Care Act, America's new health care law, everyone must carry health insurance or face fines. People need to sign up by Dec. 15 for their coverage to start by Jan. 1. The sign-up deadline to avoid penalties is March 31.

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.

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