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Hope for a smoother ride on Healthcare.gov

By Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent
updated 9:29 PM EDT, Tue October 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Healthcare.gov users have been plagued by glitches and error messages
  • Government attributes site's troubles to high volume of traffic
  • People who want insurance by January 1 need to sign up by December 15

(CNN) -- For nearly two weeks, I was a failure -- a complete and utter failure.

Ever since October 1, when Healthcare.gov went live, I've tried to go on the site and enroll. I don't need health insurance -- I get it from my employer -- but I wanted to see how easy (or difficult) it is for the millions of Americans who do need insurance and want to shop on the new exchanges set up by Obamacare.

For about a week, I couldn't even create a login and password, the necessary first step for shopping. Then finally I could, but when I tried to log in, I received error messages; sometimes I even saw the dreaded twirly thing that just went 'round and 'round. When I tried to make a new account, that didn't work either.

I called the Healthcare.gov 1-800-number for help, and the representatives said the site was very busy. They suggested I try at off-peak hours, such as early in the morning or late at night. Following their advice, I made attempts at 7 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. Still no luck.

Apparently those hours weren't off-peak enough, so on Saturday night I kissed my husband and daughters good night and set my alarm for 3 a.m. for a date with Healthcare.gov.

Elizabeth Cohen
Elizabeth Cohen

But in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I was to meet with only more disappointment.

"The system is down at the moment," read the message on the screen. "We're currently making system improvements. Please try again later."

I tried to go back to sleep but couldn't. I've covered health care reform for 25 years, first as a print reporter in Washington and then for CNN. I interviewed Sen. Claude Pepper about catastrophic coverage in the late 1980s, reported on Hillary Clinton's health care plan in the 1990s and have followed every twist and turn of the health care reform debate since 2009.

Over the years I've watched countless people suffer because they couldn't get insurance. In my Empowered Patient column I've tried to help the uninsured muddle through by explaining how to negotiate hospital fees or get help paying for prescription drugs, for example. But I knew my words were Band-Aids -- flimsy, torn Band-Aids without much sticky stuff, at best.

These people needed insurance, plain and simple. It's been a roller-coaster ride for them as health care reform passed in 2010 and was then challenged in the Supreme Court. In the weeks before that decision, Matt McManus, a dad in California, cried in an interview with me, worried out of his mind about what would happen if the court overturned Obamacare and his young daughter, who has a rare and devastating illness, lost her insurance.

McManus cried tears of joy the day the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. Millions like him were relieved that health insurance would finally be a sure thing, not something they had to yearn for or worry over.

Success on day 14 of Obamacare site

October 1 was supposed to be the big day -- the day they could finally buy a policy without worrying about denials for pre-existing conditions or sky-high premiums that only millionaires could afford. But when the big day rolled around, after years of waiting, for many their hopes were dashed as they couldn't enroll on the site. Their frustration practically jumps off the pages of the government's Healthcare.gov Facebook page, where they've lodged their complaints.

The Obama administration ascribes the trouble to "glitches" due to high traffic on the site. The president compared it to a glitch with Apple's recently launched iOS 7.

But Apple's glitch was fixed quickly and, even more importantly, was never a big deal in the first place -- the operating system was functional even with the glitch. Healthcare.gov's glitches, on the other hand, are so overwhelming that Ezra Klein of The Washington Post's Wonkblog has deemed it a "failure," at least so far.

"Not 'troubled.' Not 'glitchy.' A failure," Klein wrote.

'Cumbersome' system still has 'glitches'

There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. The government continues to work on the site, and Monday morning, I finally tasted some victory. Three times, I tried to log in and failed. Twice I tried to create new accounts but couldn't. The third time, however, I was successful.

I managed to log in and proceed with an application. I shouldn't have had to create a new account, of course, and the site is still spotty -- I couldn't log back in Monday afternoon, and then I could log in Tuesday -- but at least it's a start. We've been hearing from others, too, that the site seems to be getting better.

This snafu is not completely without precedent either. In 2005, the launch of the Medicare Part D's website was considerably delayed and riddled with glitches. They fixed the problems though, and the program is now generally considered a success.

What we don't know is how long it will take to fix the major problems with Healthcare.gov. People who want insurance by January 1 need to sign up by December 15. Will the site be fully functioning by then?

I'll be going back to Healthcare.gov every day to see how it's doing. I hope to get no more error messages, no advice to try again later, and goodness knows, no twirly things.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Elizabeth Cohen.

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