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Glitches persist in Illinois insurance marketplace

Published: Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 12:05 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 12:07 a.m. CDT

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CHICAGO – Illinois officials thanked state residents for their patience Wednesday, the second day of a new online health insurance marketplace where consumers have run into frustrating glitches when they tried to sign up for coverage.

For the second day, a new Illinois website routed people to a state Medicaid enrollment site or to a federal website, depending on household income.

The Medicaid side of the system appeared to be working smoothly, with more than 5,000 applications submitted online.

But problems with the federal website continued to prevent many people in Illinois and elsewhere from setting up accounts, comparing insurance policies and enrolling for coverage under the nation’s new health care law.

Federal officials said the delays were caused by the high traffic on the HealthCare.gov site, possibly a sign of intense public interest in the new options offered through the law.

With prices nearly impossible to access on the site, the federal government released some cost information late Tuesday for policies available in Illinois and more than 30 other states.

The new information shows prices by county, in certain age categories and certain family situations.

For example, a 27-year-old Adams County resident can choose from 39 plans ranging in price from $117 a month to $350 a month. That’s before tax credits, which could lower costs.

A 27-year-old Cook County resident can choose among 72 plans from $125 a month to $375 a month before tax credits.

The federal government is running the technical side of the Illinois marketplace because state lawmakers didn’t approve a state-run system.

By midmorning Wednesday, Champaign Urbana Public Health District employee Awais Vaid said that while people who are eligible for Medicaid could sign up through the state’s website, the federal marketplace site was still responding with error messages.

“I was there for about 45 minutes, and it was still not doing it,” he said, noting very few people had come through the office to try to sign up Wednesday.

The Get Covered Illinois website had received more than 231,000 visitors as of 3 p.m. Wednesday, said spokeswoman Kelly Sullivan.

A shortage of certified outreach workers is also a potential problem in Illinois. The workers are important because the enrollment process is complicated and many consumers need help navigating their way through the system.

Illinois has been able to certify only 200 outreach workers as of 9 a.m. Wednesday.

“We are aggressively moving hundreds more through the queue in the next few days,” Sullivan said. State officials have blamed delays in getting the workers through a federal training program for the lag in certifications.

Illinois officials have said 1,200 temporary outreach workers, hired with federal grant money, would ultimately be trained and certified. About 1.8 million Illinois residents are uninsured, about 15 percent of the population.

Some of those who are trained said that even 70 hours of training didn’t prepare them for absolutely everything they would see.

Alice Cronenberg was helping 29-year-old Debora Costa try to sign up for insurance for her two young children Wednesday in Champaign when they discovered Costa, who recently moved to nearby Savoy from Brazil, needed information from her passport she didn’t have with her.

“There are things that it’s like, because the websites are so new, not everybody knows what they need to bring,” Cronenberg said.

Costa said she’d have to come back later to finish her application, as well as apply for insurance for herself. Her husband is insured through the University of Illinois, where he’s a graduate student. But covering the whole family would have cost almost $6,000 a year. A neighbor told her she might want to check out options through the Affordable Care Act.

“We were thinking about just paying the student insurance,” which they would have struggled to afford, she said.

In Chicago, Percy Giles at the Westside Health Authority, a nonprofit group that’s helping with enrollment, said that his office had postponed all the Wednesday morning appointments made by people who want to enroll in order to bring in technical workers to make sure the problems aren’t caused by the computers in his office.

Giles said he hoped the problems that kept people who had come in Tuesday from signing up would be solved by early afternoon, and that people would be able to sign up later in the day.

Consumers were turning elsewhere for information: The call center for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois fielded five times the number of calls it normally does on Tuesday, and its website traffic jumped 75 percent.

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