Latest Obamacare Headache: Long Stays in Virtual ‘Waiting Rooms’
Policy + Politics

Latest Obamacare Headache: Long Stays in Virtual ‘Waiting Rooms’

REUTERS/Joe Skipper

The problems are a far cry from the disastrous launch of the Affordable Care Act’s on-line enrollment system in 2013, but the early going of Obamacare’s latest enrollment season has been marred by technical hiccups and long waits for people trying to sign up for health insurance on the government run site., the official Obamacare website, has been struggling to handle the flow of this year’s would-be applicants, according to The Wall Street Journal. And that has meant that many have been placed in digital holding pens or “waiting rooms” for up to an hour to avoid crashing the sign-up system.

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One enrollment activist complained to the newspaper that the use of the waiting rooms has been nearly constant during the first week and came at an unusually early point in the three-month enrollment season, far from the final deadlines that typically trigger a surge of applications that can overwhelm the system.

The technical problems come at an awkward time for the Obama administration, as the president’s signature government-run health insurance program has come under fire for premium hikes on average of 25 percent next year for some of Obamacare’s most popular plans. The program – which has provided coverage for 20 million Americans -- has come under sharp fire from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and congressional Republicans, who vowed to repeal and replace the ACA.

Open enrollment for individual insurance plans in 2017 formally began a week ago with a rush of interest. The administration reported that Obamacare was handling 50 percent more applications for eligibility compared to the first day of enrollment last year. And Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell tweeted last Tuesday that more than 60,000 applications had been filed on the federally operated in the first six hours of enrollment.

Related: The Simple Reason So Many Americans Are Opting Out of Obamacare, which provides both government-subsidized and market-rate insurance plans to residents of 39 states, was experiencing some slow-downs in processing customers as a result of that level of interest, CNBC reported at the time.

"As has been the case on previous high-volume days, customers can visit and view plans but some are periodically experiencing a waiting room before they log in,” HHS spokesperson Marjorie Connolly explained at the time.

Yet according to Department of Health and Human Services figures, roughly 500,000 applications were made during the first four days of the latest enrollment seasons, compared to 1.15 million applications submitted last year during the first full week. That suggests that there have been far fewer demands placed on’s automated enrollment system this year than the previous year.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services -- which oversees the Obamacare operations -- insists that the technical problems are minor and already has been smoothed out. Yet critics say that after years of operation, it’s troubling that the administration still hasn’t worked out all the technical kinks in the system that has drawn complaints from consumers, insurance sign-up activists and insurance brokers.

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“Here we are, this is their fourth open enrollment and they’ve been at this for a while,” Edmund F. Haislmaier, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and health care expert, said in an interview today. “You would have thought they would have fixed these problems by now . . . If this was a private company in Silicon Valley, I think they would have fixed it.”

The virtual waiting rooms were designed to restrict the number of people who can complete applications for coverage at any one time by preventing them from logging into their accounts or creating new ones to apply for insurance coverage. However, the on-line barriers don’t prevent people from browsing on a different part of the site in search of the best buy.

Elizabeth Colvin, the director of Insure Central Texas, a major enrollment organization in the Austin area that serves about 5,000 clients, said that it was puzzling there were so many technical problems this early in the enrollment system, when they are more typically encountered near the Dec. 15 and Jan. 31 deadlines.

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Colvin said in an interview that the problem was “pretty constant” during the first week of enrollments, and that applicants attempting to sign up were frequently greeted with screen shots saying “We’re working on” or “You’re in line.”

“Sometimes it felt like an hour . . . but eventually you got in,” she said, adding that the situation “is much better today -- so far.” Colvin said that there are 13 computer stations in her office and that enrollment advocates became adept at jumping from one computer to another when a log-in screen popped up.