By Deirdre Shesgreen, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Brenda Bricker has a front-row seat for the messy, botched rollout of the federal health exchange that was supposed to be a consumer-friendly online marketplace where consumers could comparison shop for insurance.
Bricker is a "navigator" - a certified counselor, working at Ozarks Community Hospital in Springfield, Mo., charged with helping patients figure out how to apply for insurance and pick a plan through the exchange. But the website has been anything but easy to use, plagued by multiple technical glitches. Bricker has gotten error messages, she's seen the site crash, and she's resorted to filing paper applications for many of her customers.
But she says she is not discouraged. And despite the problems with the website, neither are most of the people she's been trying to help.
"I really had no idea what was in store for me," Bricker said. "But . . . it has been a good experience."
Some people have grown frustrated when they're trying to navigate the site at home and they "hit a block," Bricker said. "But most of them are willing to wait until it's fixed and try again."
As officials scramble to fix the problems, the Obama administration released initial figures last week showing that from Oct. 1 through Nov. 2, only 751 Missourians had successfully selected a plan through the federal health care exchange. Nationwide, only about 27,000 people chose a plan through the federal site. Another 79,000 people signed up for insurance through 15 of the state-run exchanges, according to the Obama administration's figures.
Because Missouri declined to set up its own state-run exchange, uninsured residents are dependent on the federal site to check out their coverage options.
Republicans say the low totals are evidence that the entire health care law - not just the website - is deeply flawed.
"This is off to a very rocky start," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told Missouri reporters recently. The website will eventually be fixed, he said, but other problems will emerge.
"Many people are going to decide they just can't afford this coverage," he said.
But supporters of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, say once the flaws in the online system are fixed - and as the deadline for purchasing insurance approaches - the enrollment numbers will begin to spike. Consumers will find comprehensive insurance plans at good prices, they predict.
Bricker said at this point, most people just have questions about their options and want help getting started. "It feels good to give them some answers and peace of mind," she said.
Bricker can claim credit for at least one newly insured person in Missouri's tally.
The system worked perfectly for one customer who came to Ozarks for help last month - a woman who had never been able to afford insurance. Bricker helped her create an account and submit her financial information to see if she was eligible for a federal subsidy to cover the cost of premiums.
Within about 30 seconds, they got a response showing the woman was eligible for "quite a substantial subsidy," Bricker said. She helped the woman look at the different insurance plans available to her and choose one that fit her budget.
"It went very flawlessly," Bricker said. "It took about an hour. It was very exciting to sign up my first."
But that's been the exception for her and dozens of other navigators working across the state.
"It's kind of hit-or-miss," said Slone DeLong, a certified application counselor at CoxHealth, also in Springfield. "Some days it's great and we can get applications started. Some days it's not."
DeLong hasn't been able to sign up anyone yet. But she has helped about a dozen people start the process - creating accounts and reviewing plans.
A few want to wait to before hitting the "submit" button, to talk with their families and to make sure it's the right choice. But most people have hit technical roadblocks before they can make a purchase, she said.
DeLong and other navigators at Cox have started a waiting list with the names and phone numbers of anyone who hasn't been able to finish the process because of technical problems.
"We have 300 people on that list," said Katie Towns-Jeter, director of corporate and community health at Cox.
Like Bricker, DeLong said she is not discouraged by the problems with the website. She said her best experience in the process so far has been helping one of her own family members look at his options for coverage.
Her relative, whom she declined to name to protect his privacy, has a long history of health problems, including cancer, she said, and he's been uninsured most of his life. DeLong recently helped him and his wife look at plans on the federal exchange, and she expects them to sign up for coverage in the coming weeks.
"For me, it felt great," DeLong said. "I visited him in the hospital growing up, when he was sick, knowing he didn't have insurance and knowing he was going to have massive medical bills. . . . He will now be able to have insurance."