CHICAGO – More than 71,000 people visited Illinois' new health insurance marketplace by late Tuesday, the first opportunity to comparison shop for coverage through a system that's a key piece of President Barack Obama's signature health care law. But people hoping to enroll weren't getting much further, as the federally run website experienced glitches and delays.
At a health center on Chicago's west side, workers said their goal for the day was to get just one person enrolled, but none of the people who came in were able to do so. The same was true at the Champaign Urbana Public Health District office in Champaign.
Deborah Mitchell, 57, waited about an hour at Chicago's West Side Health Authority before giving up and making an appointment for next week. Mitchell and her 62-year-old husband have insurance but wanted to see if she could get a better rate. She also wanted to try so she can report back to the congregation at the church where her husband is a pastor.
Mitchell took the delay in stride.
"It's the first day," she said. "I'm looking for the whole week to be kind of jammed."
Gyung Min Choi, 33, and his wife, 32-year-old Minyoun Ham, were trying to find coverage for her at the Champaign Urbana health district. She's about five weeks pregnant, he said, and has no health care coverage, so she hasn't yet seen a doctor.
"We want to get some coverage for the baby's [birth]," Choi, a materials science student at the University of Illinois from South Korea, said. He explained that their only other option would be private insurance, something he probably would struggle to afford on his $24,000-a-year income.
They hadn't been able to enroll, though, after about a half hour of trying.
Gov. Pat Quinn said the problems with the website were understandable given the magnitude of the program.
"We understand with any new program there will be glitches and bumps along the way," Quinn said at a news conference in Chicago. "That's what happens with any endeavor."
The Chicago Democrat called it a "historic" day that will change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Illinois residents by helping them get health insurance. An estimated 1.8 million people in Illinois don't have coverage; officials hope at least 300,000 of them will enroll through the marketplace by March 31.
Illinois residents wanting to shop for coverage start by visiting a new website, Get Covered Illinois, where they can determine if they're eligible for Medicaid or to buy insurance on the marketplace.
Consumers who don't qualify for Medicaid based on income are directed to the marketplace, where they also can find out if they're eligible for federal tax subsidies. The site is run by the federal government because Illinois lawmakers did not vote to have the state create its own system. The state couldn't say Tuesday how many people were able to enroll. But officials said about 2,200 people were directed to the Medicaid site and submitted applications.
Illinois also opened a call center where staff fielded questions from more than 350 callers Tuesday, which also marked the launch of a $33 million advertising campaign to inform residents about Get Covered Illinois.
Still, officials were expecting a slow rollout. Though the law requires almost everyone to have health insurance, consumers have until the end of March to do so and avoid penalties for 2014. People who want their coverage to begin Jan. 1 must enroll by Dec. 15.
Patrick Lamanske and his wife, Ping Lamanske, 59, came to the Champaign Urbana Public Health District office to sign up for coverage for her. But after almost two hours of sitting in front of a laptop with a staff member, they hadn't managed to get through the federal website. Lamanske, who is 66 and retired, says he has coverage through Medicare. But his wife does not.
"It'll help me sleep better, knowing my wife's got some kind of coverage," the Champaign resident said as he waited at one of the half-dozen laptops set up in the office. She's healthy, he said, but "you never know – you break a leg, you sprain an ankle."
Julie Pryde, health district administrator, said she was "very frustrated" that people weren't able to sign up. But she said people were being really patient.
Pryde said her office had been doing outreach to younger employees of small businesses, people with pre-existing conditions and others, including to a local halfway house where she found middle-aged men who had never had access to health care other than when they were in prison.
Tuesday's launch came the same day as shutdown of the federal government led by congressional Republicans who want to block the health care law. The shutdown had no immediate effect on the marketplaces, however.
Associated Press writers Don Babwin in Chicago, David Mercer in Champaign and Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed.