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ALBANY – New York’s new health insurance exchange has gotten off to a bumpy start with crashes throughout the morning on the main state website, which residents are to use to sign up for health and dental coverage.

Repeated attempts by The Buffalo News to use key features on the site were greeted with intermittent error messages on the web page that went live at 8 a.m. today.

State Health Department officials blamed unexpectedly heavy traffic, with 2 million hits in the first two hours of the new federally funded health insurance program.

“It was above and beyond what was anticipated," said James O’Hare, a health agency spokesman in Albany.

The site allows New Yorkers, depending on where they live, to choose between up to 16 health insurance plans and 10 dental plan options under the “Obamacare” program that kicked in despite the federal government’s shutdown last night. Officials said the web site – https://nystateofhealth.ny.gov – never actually crashed, but portions of the site were unavailable throughout the morning. “If it hasn’t been resolved, we’re certainly close,” O’Hare said.

The website is the main way in which the state expects 1.1 million of New York’s 2.7 million uninsured to sign up for health coverage under the new federal health insurance program.

“We are sorry. It looks like something went wrong,” read a page that popped up this morning on the site when a tab was selected seeking to get insurance quote information. “We are sorry for the inconvenience."

The state health department contracts with an outside company, Computer Sciences Corp., to run the website. Officials could not immediately provide a dollar amount for that contract.

“With a website providing so much data to so many people, we are working through these growing pains and are confident users will have better access to the site shortly,” O’Hare said.

O’Hare said the state health department’s call center is also fielding questions about the new program at (855) 355-5777. But a call placed to that center was greeted by a recording warning of long wait times and urged callers to try back later.

The new program, which Republicans in the House of Representatives are seeking to delay in the ongoing showdown in Washington that led to the federal government’s shutdown last night, is intended to offer cheaper insurance options than are now available on the private marketplace. With coverage kicking in Jan. 1, all plans in New York must, at a minimum, offer 10 coverage guarantees, including emergency services, hospital care, pregnant mother and baby care, prescription drugs, lab services, and mental health and addiction treatments.

Like 13 other states, New York runs its own health insurance exchange program under an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

As of 2 p.m. today, state health officials said the site had received 7.5 million visits.

At Univera Healthcare, a Buffalo-based insurer participating in the program that serves eight Western New York counties, executives did not have specific numbers but said the insurer’s web site has seen a large hike in traffic by consumers searching for such information as physician participation and whether they might be eligible for tax credits under the new health care program.

The company said consumers on Tuesday were going directly to its web site likely as a result of the slowdown on the state health department’s main portal for information about the insurance program.

“I don’t expect we’re going to see a lot of people signing up today. It’s day one, and they don’t have all the tools because the state site is not functioning properly yet," said Univera’s vice president of sales Pamela Pawenski.

She said consumers are using Tuesday as a research day to find out more information about costs, physician availability and other details of the various plans participating in the new program. “People are doing homework as to what’s available," Pawenski said.

Pawenski said consumers seeking to receive eligible tax credits or tax subsidies to help lower a plan’s annual premium must sign up through the state’s health exchange’s web site.

Originally, state officials had told participating insurers that Albany would provide them with daily breakdowns on number of new consumers signing up for their plans. But over the weekend, the state notified insurers that it will be at least two weeks before that information starts flowing to the carriers.

O’Hare, the health department spokesman, said technicians have been actively working “to fix issues caused by this extremely high influx of visits."

“We are confident that over the next three months before the January deadline 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," added Marci Natale, a state health agency spokeswoman.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com