(Bloomberg) — Health insurers in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces are starting to slowly enroll new customers after computer bottlenecks and window shoppers complicated the debut of the exchanges.
Molina Healthcare Inc., Cigna Corp. and the other insurers selling plans in the government-run exchanges are reporting a trickle of applications. They anticipate sign-ups will increase as technological issues in the enrollment process are corrected and consumers gain familiarity with their options.
The 2006 Massachusetts health law that became an outline for the U.S. Affordable Care Act may show what’s to come. When that exchange opened, people on average had 18 different contacts with the website, call centers and other sources provided by the state before they actually bought a plan.
“What we are seeing is a lot of shopping right now and very few decisions being made,” says J. Mario Molina, the chairman and chief executive officer of Long Beach, California-based Molina, which is selling exchange plans in nine states.
Insurance markets for 36 states are being run by the U.S., while 14 states and Washington, D.C., have created their own sites to sell the subsidized medical plans. The government’s computer networks must collect health data from customers and compile financial records from seven federal agencies including the Internal Revenue Service, before routing that information securely to the insurance companies.
“The best minds at Google, Facebook or Microsoft would have found this daunting,” says Frank Gillett, a research analyst at Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Internet-technology consulting firm.
The federal health exchange saw repeated software troubles and long waits in its first week, as 8.6 million people visited healthcare.gov to check out the insurance offerings. The 14 exchanges run by individual states, including Nevada and Connecticut, reported similar delays after opening Oct. 1 as well.
It may take as much as a month for the exchanges to adequately deal with daily traffic and load capacity, says Paul Luehr, a managing director at New York-based Stroz Friedberg LLC, an Internet-industry consulting firm.
“For someone to run an experiment of this size, it isn’t as easy as someone plugging in a new server,” Luehr says. “They’ve got a lot of moving parts.”
The government has said it didn’t have the initial capacity to handle the larger-than-expected number of visitors in the first days. Since then, it has been adding servers and reconfiguring systems and yesterday pledged “significant improvements in the online consumer experience” by next week, Joanne Peters, a Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The application portion of the U.S. exchange website will be taken off line during off-peak hours tomorrow and Oct. 6 to fix technical issues and expand the system to handle more users, making it easier to complete the application process and buy insurance plans, Peters said.
Portals on the federal exchange that route users to older computer systems, security limits that may have slowed the system’s ability to right itself, and an initial explosion of interest might have contributed to the opening-week delays.
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