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U.S. website for health exchanges faced intermittent shutdowns for repairs

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By Karen Pallarito
HealthDay Reporter

SATURDAY, Oct. 5 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. Health and Human Services Department announced late Oct. 4 that the healthcare.gov site -- a key to the launch of the new health care insurance exchanges -- would be unavailable during "off-peak" hours over the weekend for repairs.

The exact hours the site won't be available to consumers was not specified. But an HHS spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the site would be unavailable for enrollment functions a few hours each night beginning at 1 a.m. ET. The site will remain open for general information, however.

Trouble has bedeviled the site since its launch on Oct. 1, with consumers in many parts of the United States encountering online bottlenecks while trying to price health plans and enroll in coverage.

The Obama administration tried to put a positive spin on the rocky launch, highlighting what officials called strong demand by Americans hoping for cheap, available health insurance coverage. In a news release announcing the planned fixes, the government said that "Americans are excited to look at their options for health coverage, with record demand in the first days of the marketplaces."

HealthCare.Gov, the federal government website serving people in 36 states, posted a message much of the week thanking users for their patience while they waited in a virtual queue to log into the system.

The exchanges are a key component of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration's broad yet controversial health-reform package designed to bring insurance to tens of millions of Americans who lack coverage.

The exchanges' debut has been marked by computer glitches and long wait times.

Minnesota's health exchange, called MNsure, got off to a bumpy start Oct. 1, including a server crash when the site went live. But by Oct. 2 afternoon, more than 2,500 insurance accounts had been created, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

Although Vermont's exchange was sluggish on Oct. 2 amid heavy traffic, staff members were working to speed up the website, according to an Associated Press report.

The upside to the glitches, according to health-reform advocates, is that there seems to be strong demand for health insurance among the uninsured.

The federal government has yet to release enrollment numbers, so it's unclear whether the online traffic jams have resulted in many sales of insurance policies.

Kathryn Gaglione, manager of public relations at the National Association of Health Underwriters, said health insurance agents and brokers were dealing with delays getting online just as much as consumers.

"We know it's frustrating for everyone," she said.

While the slowdown may have squelched sales to a certain extent, Gaglione noted that the exchanges have only been open for several days. "Overall, it's more than likely that the same amount of policies will be sold, just not in the first week," she said.

The conservative think tank American Action Forum released an analysis Wednesday that said premium rates for young adults in 44 states would more than double, and possibly triple, in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act, compared with 2013 rates.

Premiums for the lowest-priced coverage available this year, averaging $62 a month, would rise to $187 a month in 2014, a 202 percent increase. A healthy 30-year-old male nonsmoker could see a 260 percent spike in the lowest-cost insurance option, the analysis contended.

The probability of "young invincibles" complying with the government's individual mandate "appears fairly low," the report concluded.

But Sara Collins, vice president for affordable health insurance at The Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based health foundation, said the American Action Forum report doesn't provide a complete picture because health plans available on the exchanges are more comprehensive than some plans on the market today.

What's more, Collins said, "Most young adults who are uninsured have incomes that put them in the range of the tax credits." And while the report focuses on healthy young men, it fails to mention that "a lot of young women are actually going to see their premiums go down," she added.

Young adults' participation in the insurance exchanges is considered crucial to the success of the Affordable Care Act, which requires that most Americans get health insurance or pay a fine. Insuring young, healthy people will help to offset the risk of covering older, sicker adults, experts say.

Health-reform advocates said the scope of the registration problems suggested that the controversial law -- which triggered a historic clash between Republicans and Democrats that produced the government shutdown on Oct. 1 -- could be just what the doctor ordered for many Americans lacking insurance. The initial interest in exploring coverage options hinted at pent-up demand for the kind of coverage now being offered, the AP reported.

More information

Here's how to find the health exchange serving your state.

Copyright © 2013 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

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