High volume slows Maryland's health exchange website

Heavy volume on the newly opened Maryland health exchange website pushed those looking to buy insurance into virtual waiting rooms for up to a half-hour Wednesday morning.

Wednesday had been billed as the day the public would gain full access to the newly rebuilt website. Officials and those using the portal said the online delays were resolved later in the day.


The hiccup could reflect the level of interest in buying insurance on the site — which officials said was designed to accommodate thousands of users at a time.

About 80,000 people have visited the site and nearly 10,700 applications have been started. More than 4,000 applications were completed — 12 times the number that finished the online process in the first week last year, records show.


But the delays also echoed much bigger troubles users experienced last year when the website crashed the day it went live. It continued to perform so badly that the exchange board eventually replaced it with technology made for the Connecticut exchange.

State officials reported no problems Tuesday with the revamped Maryland website. The problem on Wednesday lasted less than an hour. It affected everyone logging into the exchange for less than 30 minutes, said Andrew Ratner, a spokesman for the exchange. Then, for another 10 minutes, about 30 percent of users were funneled into the waiting room, he said.

It was unclear how many website users were affected Wednesday morning, but most did not have waits online the rest of the day, he said.

"It may have taken a bit longer to enroll this morning, but people are getting insured," said Kris Rusch, a spokeswoman for HealthCare Access Maryland, which was contracted to help people navigate the exchange offerings.

Despite the slowness, "our customers are optimistic about the new website," she said. "And they're not waiting to the last minute to get covered."

Rusch said the group's offices have seen a steady turnout of people wanting to buy health insurance since Monday's public opening of the exchange website, which was created under the Affordable Care Act for people who do not get insurance through an employer.

Exchange officials had planned to test the revamped site with a phased rollout, with limited early access through an enrollment fair and agents. The website was not expected to open to the public until Wednesday but performed well enough that officials quietly opened it two days early.

The new website has experienced far fewer glitches than last year, when consumers encountered frozen screens and other problems that delayed their ability to get insurance for days or weeks.

Last year, consumers who reached out to call centers set up to help people with coverage decisions and other issues sometimes got busy signals. Ratner said a typical wait on the phone for a call center agent Wednesday was about 10 minutes.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, who founded and heads Evergreen Health Cooperative, one of five insurers on the exchange, said the co-op has gotten far more inquiries this year now that people can reliably go online and compare plans.

Most of the 81,000 who bought plans last year bought CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, which was already the state's dominant insurer.

"I've been on it, and it's going quite smoothly and we're very encouraged," Beilenson said of the exchange website. "It looks like open enrollment will be much improved over last year."


That could mean that more people will sign up for private plans. Last year, about 81,000 people signed up for private plans, fewer than initially projected. Nearly 377,000 people enrolled last year in Medicaid, the federal-state health plan for the poor, through the Maryland exchange and an existing state system.

In the first few days this year, the split has been more even between private and public insurance, according to the exchange.

Exchange officials hope to get everyone who enrolled last year re-enrolled so they keep their federal subsidies and to enroll others in private insurance who did not engage with the exchange last year.

To have insurance by Jan. 1, consumers must buy it by Dec. 18. Open enrollment, however, runs until Feb. 15.

Officials are counting on the website to hold up going forward.

"That was the purpose of rebuilding the system with months of testing, an expanded call center, extensive training and added layers of technical support," Ratner said. "The system will have plenty of tests between now and Feb. 15th, but it's responding to them well so far."

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