CHICAGO — Americans got their first chance Tuesday to shop for health insurance using the online marketplaces that are at the heart of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, but government websites designed to sell the policies struggled to handle the traffic, with many frustrated users reporting trouble setting up accounts.
State and federal agencies were working to fix the sites, which represent the biggest expansion in coverage in nearly 50 years. There should be time to make improvements. The open-enrollment period lasts for six months.
Administration officials said they are pleased with the strong consumer interest, but on a day of glitches they refused to say how many people actually succeeded in signing up for coverage. They gave inconsistent answers on whether a common problem was cleared up or was still being corrected.
By Tuesday afternoon, at least 2.8 million people had visited the healthcare.gov website, said Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner, whose office is overseeing the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. The website had seven times the number of simultaneous users ever recorded on the medicare.gov site.
In Texas, Steve Wolf was at his computer by 9 a.m., anxious to see how much it would cost to buy his family health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
But he was still trying seven hours later, after repeatedly getting kicked out of the online system that slowed to a snail’s pace Tuesday due to high demand and technical glitches on the first day of open enrollment.
The self-employed movie and television stunt specialist said he kept getting the same message: try again later. Other Texas residents turned to the phones, flooding local call centers looking for help in a state with the highest rate of uninsured residents in the nation.
“It’s exactly what I expected it to be, though, pretty disappointing, but I didn’t have high expectations,” the 50-year-old father of three said. “It doesn’t save any information, so you have to start from scratch every time.”
At the United Way call center in Austin, which usually gets about 150 calls a day from people looking to enroll in social services, calls topped 180 by 11 a.m., mostly from people looking for help getting insurance, said Jessica Venson, the center’s director.
And at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, three-dozen people trained to help register insurance seekers turned to paper applications to speed up the process because of the slow website.
It was a similar theme at nonprofits, hospitals and clinics statewide that are advertising the program and encouraging people to sign up in Texas, where 25 percent of residents — or about 6 million people — don’t have health insurance.
But the groups are getting no help from the state or its political leadership, who are unanimously and loudly opposed to President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Texas is one of 36 states that relied on the federal government to set up its online market place, known as a health care exchange, for consumers to compare and buy health insurance. Texas lawmakers also chose not to expand Medicaid as part of Obama’s law, so more than a million Texas residents living in poverty will not qualify for free or subsidized coverage. In Texas, Medicaid goes only to children, the disabled and impoverished senior citizens.
State-operated sites also experienced trouble.
Minnesota got its site running after a delay of several hours. Rhode Island’s site recovered after a temporary crash. A spokesman for the New York Department of Health blamed difficulties on the 2 million visits to the website in the first 90 minutes after its launch. Washington state’s marketplace used Twitter to thank users for their patience.
Exchange officials in Colorado said their website would not be fully functional for the first month, although consumers will be able to get help applying for government subsidies during that time. Hawaii’s marketplace wasn’t allowing people to compare plans and prices.
Connecticut seemed to be a bright spot, although some users reported some snags. Access Health CT sent out a tweet shortly before noon Tuesday, confirming the marketplace logged 10,000 visitors in the first three hours of operation and 22 enrollments. A family of three was the first to sign up for coverage.
California, home to 15 percent of the nation’s uninsured, reported delays online and on the phone because of heavy volume. The first completed health insurance application was taken at 8:04 a.m., just minutes after the exchange opened.
In Portsmouth, N.H., Deborah Lielasus tried to sign up for coverage but got only as far as creating an account before the website stopped working. She said she expected problems.