By David Morgan and Lewis Krauskopf
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Access to new online health insurance exchanges remained limited on Thursday for millions of Americans seeking information on Obamacare benefits, creating a backlog of the uninsured seeking coverage.
Local health clinics, nonprofit community groups and others have stepped forward to assist would-be beneficiaries in person. They saw an unexpected influx of phone calls and walk-in visits from uninsured people who couldn't access their state's online marketplace due to heavy traffic and technical problems.
Community health clinics in Miami and other Florida cities have seen crowds of people, some lining up outside the door as early as 7 a.m. EDT. Florida's exchange is being handled by the federal government's Healthcare.gov site, which has stalled for many users in the 36 states it serves.
"There have been so many issues with online enrollment because of glitches. But we've been able to take down a ton of information from people so that they can come back and complete the process as soon as the computer glitches get resolved," said Andy Behrman of the Florida Association of Community Health Centers, which has 50 facilities in Florida.
One of the association's clinics in Miami-Dade County had 260 visitors in one day, while others saw similar traffic.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said on Thursday that 7 million visitors have logged onto Healthcare.gov. A federal call center has also fielded 295,000 telephone calls.
To share your experience with the online exchanges, see: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ReutersExchanges
Officials are quick to emphasize that the number of website hits is unlikely to bear any correlation to a much smaller number of actual enrollments in the exchanges' first week. But they expect the number of Americans completing applications to spike in November and December for people intent on having benefits available on January 1.
Technical experts worked around the clock to expand the capacity of the federal system. Officials said improvements reduced the number of people stuck on hold by about one-third. But by Thursday afternoon, visitors seeking to set up an account on Healthcare.gov were still running into web pages asking them to wait.
KEEPING TRACK OF THE INTEREST
As a result, organizations at the grass-roots level have begun finding ways to keep track of the uninsured who have not been able to get through.
"For folks who've had trouble enrolling, the most important thing is that someone's there to answer questions and make an appointment for next week to go through the process," said Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, a nonprofit group at the forefront of Obamacare's grass-roots outreach to the uninsured.
Gateway to Care, a small nonprofit healthcare organization headquartered in impoverished southeast Houston, has received scores of telephone calls from people wanting to learn about their options under the law. Many of the callers live outside the group's county-wide service area.
"It's really unexpected. We thought we were going to have to really beat the bushes to get people interested," said Gateway to Care's executive director Ron Cookston, who has had 15 of his 19 staff members trained as Obamacare application counselors.
One health center in Miami managed to enroll 68 people for subsidized coverage through Healthcare.gov. The center's staff also had to turn away 24 people who cannot obtain health coverage in Florida because its Republican-controlled legislature has not agreed to join Obamacare's Medicaid expansion for the poor.
"That really, really bothers me," Behrman said. (Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner in New York; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Cynthia Osterman)