NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Health care officials in New Orleans were undeterred by opening-day computer glitches as they worked Tuesday to sign up customers for the online insurance marketplaces at the heart of the national health care overhaul.
“So many people understand that this is really a good program and is really helpful to them. I’m not surprised that the computers are overwhelmed at all,” said Dr. Don Erwin, president of the non-profit St. Thomas Community Health Center.
About a dozen workers at the center were helping people get information on the Affordable Care Act from a Kaiser Foundation website, and taking those who want coverage to a private area to sign up.
John Maginnis, spokesman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, which is one of four companies providing insurance through the exchange in Louisiana, said no one among about a dozen testers of the system was able to complete a transaction Tuesday.
Still, he said, call volume at Blue Cross from those interested in the program was up. He added that Blue Cross agents and independent agents around the state can guide interested people through the process.
“We’re advising people to take a deep breath, relax,” Maginnis said. “The exchanges, the marketplaces, are going to be open for quite a long time.”
Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said his office fielded a surprisingly low number of calls from people seeking information about the new law, about 40.
“I’m surprised at it based on the complexity of this new marketplace and the amount of media coverage that I participated in over the past week and the amount of media coverage that has been in the national print and electronic media,” Donelon said.
The enrollment period lasts six months. With that in mind, New Orleans’ city health officials were planning weekend sign-up events throughout October.
“We want people to have information but we also want them to know this is the beginning, it’s not the only day, to be patient and take time to go back to the website,” said Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the city’s health commissioner.
Louisiana is among the states that refused to run its own marketplace, leaving that to the federal government under a decision made by Gov. Bobby Jindal. The Republican strongly opposed the Democratic president’s Affordable Care Act.
In a state where President Barack Obama’s popularity is low and Republicans dominate state government, supporters of the health law Obama championed tried to educate the uninsured about the new availability of insurance.
Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans circulated emails and links to online sign-up instructions.
Donelon, a Republican, said his department would do its best to help people interested in getting private insurance through the exchanges, despite his personal opposition to the law.
“I am a regulator,” said Donelon. “If I had had a vote, if I were a policy maker I would have voted no because I think the negatives outweigh the positives. There are positives contained in the proposal. Regardless of all of that it’s my job to help and protect consumers and to regulate insurers. And this is a big part of the health insurance market place as of today.”
Supporters of the health care law lamented the refusal by Jindal and the conservative Legislature to expand Medicaid eligibility in the state to allow more working poor to qualify for free coverage.
“Many of our state’s neediest citizens will still be left without basic health coverage because they are too poor to qualify for federal subsidies,” said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, an independent policy group. “The intent of the health-care law was for this population — those with incomes below the federal poverty line — to be covered by Medicaid. But the governor and the Legislature unfortunately refused the opportunity to cover 400,000 low-income adults while also saving money in the state budget.”