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Failing to buy insurance on HealthCare.gov

Published 2014-03-01 · By James Bursa

I recently tried to use the US government’s new “health insurance exchange”, HealthCare.gov, to buy health insurance. This website was created as part of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), and it’s been in the news regularly for not working properly.

You may have read the news stories, but how usable was the site really? Here’s a tour of what happened when I used it. I don’t know if my experience was typical or not. The problems were reported fixed at the time I used it.

Welcome page

Creating an account

I started by creating an account. The site requires at least one number or symbol in your username – I’ve never seen that on any other website.

Creating an account

Like many other sites, there are dubious “security questions” to help recover your account if you forget the password. At least the designers have selected some better questions than usual (i.e. harder for someone else to answer by researching your family history).

Security questions

After filling in the above forms, I received an email to verify my email address. However, for some reason, the email appeared as empty in my mail client (Claws Mail). I tried viewing the source and copying and pasting the link hidden there. Oops:

Email address verification error

Eventually I figured out that the email displayed correctly in my webmail, and clicking the link there successfully created my account.

Filling in the application

I could now start filling in an application.

Identity verification

The first step in the application was entering my personal details (e.g. address and social security number), so that the site could verify my identity. I filled in everything requested, but ended up with this:

Identity wasn’t verified, call Experian

I called Experian as instructed. The operator asked me just three additional questions, including the name of my high school and the county that I previously lived in. Then they told me that I’d successfully verified my identity, but when I went back to the website, it didn’t agree:

Identity still not verified

I waited a few minutes, tried again, and it finally worked (for now!):

Identity verified

Now I had several pages of forms to fill in, with details of everyone applying for coverage (just me). One of the more interesting forms was this one, listing 16 different languages:

Languages

Various obscure and mysterious documents were listed here. I don’t know what would happen if you had any of these:

List of documents

Finally, there’s this ominous declaration that you’re not jailed!

Warning about jail

I got through all the forms and things were looking good. It wasn’t clear what to put in this box, so I just typed my name:

Electronic signature

The whole process had taken me about 30 minutes until now, including the phone call to Experian.

Almost finished

Verifying my identity

Alas, at this point, the website decided that my identity was not verified again, despite what it said earlier.

Welcome back

I tried resubmitting my information as instructed, but it didn’t help.

Identity not verified again

Eventually I got prompted to upload documents to prove my identity. The site presented a long list of document types, but it didn’t tell me which one I should actually upload. Would any of these be accepted, or would I need a specific one for my situation?

Uploading identity documents

I decided to use the Live Chat feature to ask.

Live chat support

It turned out that the operator could only give me general information, but they couldn’t look at my account to help with my specific problem. Here’s part of what they told me:

James: Hi. I verified my identity successfully, but now the system informs me that my identity wasn't verified. What should I do?

Aeyai: we have been experiencing that problem where you verified your identity, but it sill does not verify. At the moment the only work around for that is to complete an application over the phone, submitting a application on our end allows us to bypass the verification. So that you can get a determination within the same call.

James: Thank you. What about the option to upload documents? Can I use that?

Aeyai: you could use that option.

James: Which document should I upload?

Aeyai: it depends if it needs to verify citizenship use the correct documents, if it just needs to verify identity you could just use a Drivers License.

James: OK, I will try with the drivers license. Thank you for your help.

I uploaded a scan of my drivers license as recommended.

I waited a few minutes, and then returned to the website. At the top of my profile page was this promising line, saying “You have a notice available about your identity verification.”

It looks just like a link, but it isn’t. There’s no way to read the mentioned notice, or find out what it’s about. Later, when I talked to a support operator, they told me that this was a “glitch”, and that everyone sees the same message!

My profile page

I came back to the site about half an hour later, to find that my profile had updated to “Identity verified”:

My profile page, identity verified

Submitting again

I went back into my application to try submitting it again. The site makes you go through every form again – even if you don’t need to change anything. After clicking “Continue” dozens of times, I reached the familiar electronic signature page again:

Electronic signature again

When I clicked “Save & Continue to Verify Identity”, something odd happened. An error message appeared on the screen, but before I had a chance to read it, it disappeared and was replaced by the “My Profile” page.

I repeated the whole tedious process of clicking through each form, and managed to grab this screenshot of the error:

Error message

As you can see, it’s completely useless (and disappears ½ a second later).

By now I’d spent almost 2 hours working on this, so I decided to wait to see if the problem would resolve itself. I tried submitting the application over the next few days, getting the same error each time.

Eventually I decided to call the exchange to see if they could help me. The operator went through my application with me, and asked me about my expected income in 2014. Then they informed me that the site’s “verification system” was down, and that I should wait 24 to 48 hours, and try again.

Another way

The problem didn’t go away for the next few days. The deadline for buying insurance for 2014 was approaching, so I looked for an different way to get it.

I came across an article mentioning eHealth, a commercial website for shopping for health insurance. The contrast to HealthCare.gov couldn’t be greater. To start, I just had to enter my Zip code, date of birth, and gender, and I got a list of plans:

eHealth site used instead

Once I decided on a plan, it only took me about 15 minutes to complete the purchase.

The only disadvantage of using this site compared to the government version is that you can’t get the government subsidy for premiums, if eligible.

Letters

A few days later, I was surprised to get this letter through the mail. I’ve blurred the personal information:

Letter asking for documents

As you can see, it answers the question I had about which documents to upload. Unfortunately it arrived too late to help me – perhaps they should have used email.

That’s not all however. About a month later, I received this letter (dated 16 December, but arrived 13 January):

Letter informing of approval

I have no idea why this letter took almost a month to arrive. It’s also got some strange formatting errors.

Conclusions

As you can see, the HealthCare.gov site didn’t work properly for me. I saw links that didn’t work, incomplete instructions, cryptic error codes, and delayed letters.

In my limited experience of the US healthcare system, I’ve seen how complex and bureaucratic it can be. In November, I spent an hour on the phone with an insurer in a failed attempt to renew my policy. Another time, I spent ages calling my insurer, doctors office, and a hospital lab trying to find out why I was charged $213 for a simple Vitamin D test (in the end I gave up and paid).

Government IT projects are also notoriously expensive and unreliable. HealthCare.gov apparently cost over $296 million.

Given the combination, I wasn’t surprised by what happened. Still, it was disappointing, and it reminded me of the advantages of Britain’s NHS, where the financial side of healthcare is invisible to patients.

In contrast to the clunky and broken government website, I found eHealth fast and easy to use, much like buying something on eBay or Amazon. If only HealthCare.gov had been something like this!

Links

I came across these articles that analyse why government IT has problems so often: