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Long wait times greet users of federal health exchange on first day

Oct 2, 2013 - By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

Things got off to a rocky start Tuesday for the federal government's new health insurance exchange in Wyoming: even representatives of the insurance companies that want to sell through the Web site were unable to make it work.

Complicating the issue, some officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services were unavailable Tuesday, apparently because the budget meltdown in Congress led to many workers being furloughed.

Wyoming is among 36 states in which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched health insurance exchanges Tuesday. People may register now, with coverage beginning in January.

However, many people visiting the site, HealthCare.gov, on Tuesday and specifying that they wanted to register in Wyoming never got past an automated message telling them that there were many visitors to the site and that they should wait.

"I can't get in it," Wyoming Insurance Commissioner Tom Hirsig said Tuesday of the site. "I tried for a couple of hours, and gave up."

Hirsig said he wasn't surprised to see glitches with the new site.

"I think it's what we expected, I think there's a lot of not so much shoppers, but a lot of people like you and myself, who are trying to get in there and see what's in there," he said.

First-day wait

WINhealth, a Cheyenne-based health maintenance organization, is one of two companies offering health insurance through the federal exchange in Wyoming. Stephen K. Goldstone, president and CEO of WINhealth, said Tuesday that his company also had problems accessing the exchange system.

"It's new, it's a complex system," Goldstone said. "I'm sure there are lots of people trying to access the site, probably many of them are in the media. I also would say that we don't feel a real sense of urgency right now given the fact that we have until the middle of December for people to enroll."

The federal Affordable Care Act will require people to have health insurance from an approved plan. Goldstone said there are roughly 84,000 people in the state who don't currently have coverage. Of those uninsured, he said up to 70 percent may be eligible for some sort of federal subsidy to help them cover the cost of insurance.

High premiums in state

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last week released rate information showing Wyoming will face some of the highest premiums in the nation under the Affordable Care Act.

According to the federal figures, the national average cost for a family of four making $50,000 a year would be $774 a month for health insurance coverage under a "silver" plan. In Wyoming, that rate would be $1,237, but tax credits for eligible insurance shoppers could bring the cost down.

Hirsig and other officials have said health care is more expensive in Wyoming because of its sparse population. Wyoming is the least-populated state with a population of around 560,000.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wyoming is the other company that plans to offer health insurance through the new federal exchange. Wendy Curran of the company said Tuesday that the site wasn't working for her, either.

Curran said her company's own site could take information from people interested in getting insurance.

"At the moment, it appears that the federal site is not available to complete your enrollment," Curran said. "It's not an unexpected delay, and we hope that as the week progresses, the glitches will be taken care of.

"We're advising people to either give us their contact information and we can either contact them back when we know it's up and running or simply asking them to come back perhaps later in the week when they have the glitches worked out."

Getting straight information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about the source of problems with the exchange site was difficult Tuesday.

A recording at the HHS public affairs office in Denver stated, because of the federal government shutdown, "we are out of the office on furlough."

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