TAMPA — Brian Knauer couldn't sleep after the Tampa Bay Rays lost on Tuesday, so he decided to pay a late-night visit to the Obamacare insurance exchange. To his surprise, the troubled website let him create an account. But when he tried to log in, up came the phrase "invalid screen."
"I think this is going to be a great thing, but, man, oh, man," said Knauer, an independent insurance broker.
Week two of the online insurance exchange was still slow-going for the millions of Americans who must shop there to qualify for subsidized health insurance next year. The exchange, where private insurers are selling a range of plans, is aimed at people who can't get coverage through their employers or the government, such as Medicare.
Americans are giving the website's bumpy debut underwhelming reviews. Just 7 percent of Americans say the rollout of the health exchanges has gone extremely well or very well, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. Still, plenty of Americans are giving the system a try. Seven percent of respondents reported that somebody in their household has tried to sign up for insurance through the exchanges, according to the poll.
The Obama administration declined to say how many people had been able to enroll in plans through the sites that it runs or helps run in 36 states, including Florida. States that decided to operate their own exchanges had initial glitches but have reported a steady stream of enrollments in recent days.
Administration officials have pinned most of the blame for the technology troubles on the unprecedented volume of visitors to the federal site, 3 million just on the first day. But independent experts say now a design flaw may have been the biggest problem: Consumers must create online accounts before they can even browse plans.
Most e-commerce sites don't require initial registration. And it magnified the amount of work the federal site must do, increasing the odds of bottlenecks. But the Obama administration wanted consumers to know how much of a subsidy they could get before looking at the plans, which meant a registration-first approach, a spokeswoman said.
Still, on Thursday the site offered a way to let people browse plans without registering. Go to healthcare.gov/find-premium-estimates, and you can see the plans available in your area. But you still can't calculate the subsidies for which you may qualify unless you fully register.
Subsidies can greatly reduce the monthly premiums for many people of modest incomes, and they're available only to people who sign up through the government site. Insurance carriers have notified many independent agents not to try to enroll someone who might qualify for a subsidy since the federal website is not working properly.
In fact, several agents told the Times that insurers told them to hold off on exchange enrollments until Nov. 1. People who know they don't qualify for a subsidy can purchase a plan through an agent or insurance company now.
Eddie de la Rosa, an insurance adviser with CMA Health in Tampa, said nobody wants to give someone the wrong subsidy estimate since it means they could be paying too much in premiums or owing a lot of money at tax filing season. "There's a lot of missing pieces and questions," he said.
Another tip agents have offered people who have individual plans that they like: If they renew them now, they will be considered covered under the law through 2014. They have to buy an ACA-compliant plan after that, but this move would give them time to consider options.
Consumers have until Dec. 15 to buy coverage that begins Jan. 1. But the federal government is revising one part of its official timeline. Although open enrollment doesn't end until March 31, consumers must sign up before Feb. 15 to avoid penalties for being uninsured.
The reason: Coverage typically starts on the first day of the month after an application is approved, and it takes up to 15 days to process applications.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.