Bill Kammerzell of Annapolis hoped to enroll in an insurance plan under health reform first thing Tuesday morning but the state's website crashed.
The state marketplace where the uninsured could start buying health plans began having problems immediately after its scheduled 8 a.m. launch. Delays continued all day with people still unable to get onto the site by early evening.
The exchange was among many across the country with opening day hiccups.
"Thank you for visiting Maryland Health Connection," read a notice at the bottom of the website. "We are experiencing connectivity issues. Please visit the site again at 12 noon."
The site finally found life again at about 12:30 p.m., although another note cautioned people about slowness because so many were trying to gain access and people still reported problems.
State officials had warned about the possibility of glitches. The first day's problems were caused by a logjam of people trying to create accounts on the site, said Maryland Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein. At one point, about 1,000 people a minute were trying to create accounts, he said.
"I think that we expected there would be some things on the first day that could create road blocks and our job is to remove those road blocks," Sharfstein said.
Kammerzell, 62, took the delay in stride, despite his eagerness to buy insurance that will cover his $900 medicine to treat low testosterone. He did some research and believes he can get a plan with a lower deductible than he now pays and also will qualify for subsidies to help pay for it.
"I figured this would happen," he said. "There are all kinds of people trying to get on here. The site is open 24 hours. I'll buy it at 2 a.m. if I have to."
It was a rough start for health reform, or Obamacare, across the country as exchanges in numerous states hit bumps. Enrollment in health plans under the controversial landmark legislation began despite a federal government shutdown prompted by a battle over Republican efforts to delay its start.
Most people who get health insurance through their jobs won't see a change under Obamacare. But millions of uninsured, including 800,000 in Maryland, will have access to insurance through the state exchange — or pay a penalty if they choose not to buy it. Supporters of the measure say that when everyone gets regular care, it will drive down health costs.
The exchange glitch provided fodder for opponents to health reform. Republican Congressman Andy Harris said he was among those who tried to log on to the Maryland Health Connection to compare premium prices, but was unable to connect. He called it a "bad omen."
"They've had three and a half years to prepare for this; I can't understand why on the rollout day for Maryland, Marylanders can't even find out how much this insurance is going to cost," Harris said.
A federally-run exchange for consumers in 36 states began posting error messages for consumers in at least 25 of them soon after the system opened for enrollment, citing online traffic as a reason for the difficulties.
An Obama administration official said experts were aware of the issue and were working on it. The Department of Health and Human Services directed consumers to call centers and local community organizers to seek information.
Federal and state officials had warned earlier in the week that the exchanges could experience technical difficulties. Maryland set up a command center of about 20 people to immediately address any problems.
Sharfstein said testing was done on the site prior and that the shutdown was unexpected. Technicians slowed access to the sign-up portion of the site, while they tried to fix the problem, Sharfstein said. He wasn't sure when work would be completed.
The bright side is that many Marylanders seem to have interest in the plans, Sharfstein said. By 4:30 p.m., the state had received 50,000 unique views to the website and more than 300,000 page views.
Evergreen Health, a new insurance co-op started by former Baltimore health commissioner Peter Beilenson, decided not to enroll people on the first day because of the potential for problems. They have scheduled appointments with about 100 people to help begin enrolling later this week.
"We wanted to make sure everything was up and running smoothly," Beilenson said. He cautioned that people shouldn't be too critical of the mishaps, noting it took years before the federal Medicare program became what it is today.