“Today’s the Day” was spread across the top of the newspaper ad in yellow letters 1½ inches high.
“You don’t have to wonder if you can afford a quality health plan,” it said.
In reality, many New York State residents had to wonder a little longer before they could check out their health insurance options on the New York State of Health website. The site received more than 2 million visitors in the first two hours after it launched Tuesday morning, first slowing it down and then causing it to operate in fits and starts the rest of the day.
A notice at the top of the website suggested users come back “later.”
They do have some time. Coverage purchased through the new health insurance marketplace, also called an exchange, doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2014.
Although interest was expected to be high, the number of early visitors proved to be overwhelming. The website is where uninsured New Yorkers can access the health insurance plans available under the Affordable Care Act, also called “Obamacare.” By signing in at www.nystateofhealth.ny.gov, people can explore health insurance options and find out what federal subsidies they may qualify for to pay their premiums.
And, while it is laid out in a “question and answer” format, the site is running a complex program that includes many variables for individual users, depending on where they live, their income, the number of people in their families and their specific needs for hospitals and personal physicians, with each answer leading into a specific direction for more input.
However, it was expected that many of the people trying to access the website Tuesday were window-shoppers who wanted to see what their choices might be, rather than customers ready to enroll.
“I don’t expect we’re going to see a lot of people signing up today,” said Pamela Pawenski, Univera’s vice president of sales. “It’s day one, and they don’t have all the tools because the state site is not functioning properly yet.”
She expected the first few days will be more for research.
“People are doing their homework as to what’s available,” she said.
They have until Dec. 14 to sign up for insurance that goes into effect Jan. 1, but for the first year, open enrollment will continue through March 31, 2014.
Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy came to Buffalo Tuesday morning to talk about the launch of New York State of Health at the Gates Vascular Center, which is operated by Kaleida Health. Under a state contract, Kaleida has trained 400 “navigators” to assist people and small businesses in making their insurance choices. All the plans include “10 essential benefits” for doctor visits, emergency services, prescriptions and free preventive care, but they vary in other costs, such as premium amount, physicians in network and deductibles – which can be high on plans with low premiums.
Kaleida was seeing about a 100 percent increase in calls to its customer service line as of late Tuesday afternoon, according to Jennifer Nichols, senior director of revenue cycle operations, who oversees Kaleida’s navigator program. The number there is (716) 859-8979. Callers do not have to be Kaleida patients, and appointments are free.
“Some people are looking for information, some want to know where they should be going from here,” Nichols said. “We have some callers talking with our regular financial counselors.”
She added, “I think the state has done a great job with the website, despite the traffic problems today.”
Late in the afternoon, Donna Frescatore, executive director of New York State of Health, issued a statement about the program’s first day and the website difficulties.
“Today, with the launch of New York State’s Health Insurance Exchange, over 9,000 New Yorkers, including business owners and individuals, shopped online for low-cost health insurance for the first time,” the statement said.
By 5 p.m., the website had approximately 10 million Web visits, far more than anticipated, she said.
Call centers handled some of the excess volume, Frescatore noted, and efforts were being made to increase the site’s capacity and find the cause of “this abnormally high traffic.” The call center number is (855) 355-5777.
The state estimates there are a total of 2.7 million uninsured residents, and less than half of those are expected to actually sign up for insurance through the ACA.
During Tuesday’s event at Gates, Duffy spoke enthusiastically about the state’s program and pointed out that the state could realize millions in savings on health care costs, providing people sign up for insurance. New York is one of 14 states running its own health insurance marketplace to meet the federal mandate, under an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
One Buffalo resident who has already benefited from the ACA told his story at the media event. Schuyler Banks, 48, explained that, since he took a severance offer from his previous job, his family is relying on the insurance provided through his wife’s employer. Premiums are $800 a month.
Because of portions of the health care act that went into effect in 2010, their 25-year-old daughter was able to remain on her parents’ insurance while she was in law school. So, when she was diagnosed last year with breast cancer, she had health insurance.
Banks said since then his daughter has been declared cancer-free and will soon graduate.
“It really is about having better access to health care and affordable insurance premiums,” Banks said. “This is a good start, but we aren’t there yet. I don’t think the cost of your health care should be driven by who your employer is.”
At the state Health Department, spokeswoman Marci Natale said that despite the glitches, there is no doubt help is on the way, at least for some of the uninsured.
“We are confident that over the next three months … we will address any additional issues that come up, and all New Yorkers who want to will be able to shop for low-cost health insurance plans,” she said.