Like millions of Americans, Kelly Fristoe was anxious to see what the Affordable Care Act’s much-touted health insurance exchanges had to offer when the system went live Oct. 1. So much so, that he set his alarm for 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning to take a look. Unfortunately, even at that early hour, the owner of Financial Partners in Wichita Falls, Texas, encountered what would become a common theme that day: technical difficulties.

“Nobody had much luck [Tuesday]. Show me a person who had luck getting people enrolled and I’ll eat a boot,” says Fristoe, president of the Texas Association of Health Underwriters.

Fristoe was foiled by the site’s security question page, which had a drop down menu that — instead of offering questions such as, ‘what is your mother’s maiden name’ or ‘where did you go to high school’ — was blank. He talked to another agent later that morning who had the same experience. Fristoe had hoped to gain practice on the site so that he could be as informative as possible for his individual and small-group clients. “I wanted to see what plans looked like; I wanted to see how you would go about doing the data input,” he says.

Thom Mangan, CEO of United Benefit Advisors, refers to the launch of the exchanges as “a loud thud of a roll out.” Like Fristoe, he logged on to his state’s site, GetCoveredIllinois.gov, just to see what was available. Although Mangan believes “the system is not even close to being ready for the amount of interest,” he was at least glad to see that one of the first buttons visible on the Illinois site is one about how to contact a health insurance agent.

Meanwhile, the insurance company portals offering access to the exchanges, such as Blue Cross and Cigna, were experiencing technical difficulties as well, Fristoe reports. When he attempted to get quotes for clients, the sites would freeze. “At this point my frustration has to do with I have customers that are wanting information on prices and plan designs and they know they have to enroll with Jan. 1 effective dates,” he says, pointing out that although open enrollment goes until the end of March, individuals interested in a 1/1 effective date will need to be enrolled by Dec. 15 — less than 75 days away.

Fristoe likens the situation to a new restaurant opening up in a small town. Everyone wants to eat there right away, but the place is likely to be overwhelmed, and therefore have poor service, maybe even sub-par food. “It’s just chaos, and that’s what we’re dealing with, is the chaos,” he says, “and I still have customers that are wanting information that I can’t get.”

By Tuesday night, David Smith, vice president at Ebenconcepts in Morrisville, N.C., was still experiencing run-time errors as he attempted to log in to North Carolina’s site. “I talked to a bunch of people in the business [Tuesday] afternoon and night [who said], ‘I still haven’t gotten in. I still don’t know what the plans look like,’” says Smith.

Although Ebenconcepts has more than 40 agents trained and ready to enroll clients, Smith says the agency isn’t ready to let those clients actually enroll just yet. “We have done a communication to all of our clients, all of our agents to say, ‘We’ve got to give this a couple of weeks before we really react to it,’” he says. “Because even with the technology infrastructure there we can’t look at it. And that’s incredibly frustrating right now, it’s incredibly paralyzing right now.”

Smith acknowledges that he “doesn’t have a lot of clients who buy Christmas presents in July,” implying that they are equally as unlikely to buy health insurance in October that is not effective until January. But, it is still “frustrating” that the difficulties accessing the exchange mean agents remain in the dark about exact product availability and pricing. “People are calling our phones left and right, clients, prospects, et cetera. But we don’t really know anything because like a lot of people, none of us have seen what products are there. We don’t know what the networks look like,” he says.

Ryan Hanley, of Albany, N.Y.-based The Murray Group, agrees that more information is needed. “It seems like right now people are lot more concerned about pushing this product into the world versus explaining what it is,” he says. “There needs to be more information … people are bum-rushing this site trying to figure out what’s going on.”

He adds that many people — agents included — are still questioning how to do a cost-benefit analysis of joining a public health exchange versus remaining in the private market. “For now we are in an age of confusion,” Hanley says.

While acknowledging technical issues and some missing information, Michael Wolff, chief operations and financial officer at Dickerson Employee Benefits in Los Angeles, is nonetheless excited at the launch of Covered California. One of only four agencies appointed to help the California state exchange system with its SHOP exchange, the Dickerson offices have been a training facility for agent exchange certification. “We believe the initial reaction shows that there’s a big need,” he says. “We have only two days now to report, but what I’m impressed by is how big of an interest there is,” he says, adding the California has reported more than 5 million visits to the Covered California site and “hundreds of thousands of calls” since Tuesday. “That’s pretty impressive.”

Wolff agrees with Smith’s prediction that it is nearly “unheard of” to sign up for insurance three months ahead of an effective date. At this point site visits and phone inquiries are “just a lot of curiosity,” he believes. With that in mind, Wolff urges people not to panic that some rates have yet to be released, pointing out that even established carriers outside of the exchanges don’t have their rates available for Jan. 1, 2014 yet. “Everybody should breathe a little bit,” he says, “and then we’ll take it from there. It is a big undertaking, that’s for sure.”

 

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