Michael Smerconish | Nightmare on health site

December 4, 2013 

MBR

Michael Smerconish is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

HIROKO TANAKA — MCT

I’m in health care purgatory.

Since sunrise on the day of the launch, Oct. 1, I’ve attempted to shop for health insurance at healthcare.gov. Almost eight weeks later, I still haven’t been successful in accessing quotes online for insurance.

My experience has been a Kafkaesque nightmare of Internet denial and telephone roadblocks. And this is not some journalistic folly. I’m in the market for health insurance and have been optimistic about my ability to get a competitive rate as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

Here’s the most frustrating part: Apparently, there is a competitive rate for my family and me, but I haven’t been able to examine it.

For the first few weeks, I couldn’t even gain access to the site. I would log on to the Web address with no result. The screen was all white space with no information.

Then one day — eureka! — I got to the home page, was greeted by the smiling face of the woman whose image has become synonymous with the site (and led to her allegedly being cyberbullied).

After inputting my home state of Pennsylvania, I was at least able to access an application. But when I was asked for a username and password, the screen froze.

Trying again later, I could get to a page that asked me to provide the answers to three security questions — but my screen didn’t show me the questions. I tried every conceivable way of getting beyond that step. It occurred to me that the answers were what was important, not the questions, so I tried providing consistent answers to questions I’d never seen.

No dice.

A few days later — voila! — the questions appeared. I was elated, but no closer to results. That’s because my next roadblock came when it was time to finalize my application. Data that I repeatedly inputted would not save. I was back to square one.

Finally, I called the toll-free number and walked through my application with an operator who told me she was in Texas. It took about 45 minutes for me to cover the basics — all of my personal information and that of my wife and three sons. (Our daughter will be 26 in the spring and no longer able to be carried on our plan.)

This was a nonintrusive, cursory “Q&A,” except for a question about tobacco usage that did not differentiate between cigars and cigarettes (a distinction that has been recognized by my insurers in the past).

After receiving my information, the operator told me that there were nine plans available for me. I was ecstatic and began to scribble notes. (“Independence Blue Cross/Keystone HMO plan for $1,926 per month?/6k out of pocket/$0 deductible/$15 r. visit co-pay/$5 prescription. Slightly more: Independence Blue Cross PPO plan. Can pay half that for far less protection.)

She assured me that all of the information I had provided would be merged with my online endeavors through my Social Security number just as soon as the bugs were out of the website. Then I would be able to go online and review all nine plans available to me. Great news.

Except that a few days later, when I could finally access the website, none of the data I had provided over the phone was on my application. I had to start over — again.

OK, I thought, with the website up and running, it will take me half the time to input the data on my computer that it took me to do so through the operator. (Spelling S-m-e-r-c-o-n-i-s-h was a fatiguing process for us both.)

So, again, I inputted all the data for our family, at the end of which I was asked to electronically verify my signature. There was no instruction provided on how to do this. When I finally figured out that it meant simply typing in my name (too bad it didn’t say so), my application was not accepted.

Why not? Apparently because all of my attempts at accessing healthcare.gov left the computer model convinced I was a fraud. To which I say, if any crook invests this amount of time in impersonating me, he’s entitled to my health insurance.

Now it was back to the toll-free number, whereupon an operator told me that I should send a copy of my passport or my driver’s license so that my identity could be confirmed.

Huh? I protested, noting that would mean a several-day turnaround. The alternative, I was told, was uploading an image of either document to the website. I did, and was told they’d be in touch.

One day later, I logged on to my still “pending” application and was greeted with this message:

“You have a notice available about your identity verification.”

This was yet another reminder of the poor design of the website. Were I dealing with Amazon or Orbitz, that “notice” would have been imbedded in the message itself.

No such luck here.

Instead, there was only an “x” off to the side, so I clicked it. Guess what? The message went away. And so did my ability to try to figure out what it was.

Now it was back to the toll-free number, where I was told to expect an email explanation. None has arrived. Out of curiosity, I asked whether she had a record of my prior calls. She did — six. Wrong again. The number is double that.

What’s most frustrating is to think there are nine different plans for me to consider. If only I could see them. Especially because mental health is covered, and about now, I’m in need of some.

Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.

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