Opinion: First-person account of nightmarish health site

Michael Smercorish

I’m in purgatory. Since 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.

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 getting a competitive rate as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Here’s the most frustrating part: 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 get to the site. I would log on to the 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 synonymous with the site (and led to her allegedly being cyber-bullied). After inputting my home state of Pennsylvania, I was at least able to access an application. But when I was next 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 — only my screen didn’t show me them. I tried every way of getting beyond that step. It occurred to me the answers were what was important, so I tried providing consistent answers to questions I’d never seen. No dice.

A few days later, the questions appeared. I was elated but not closer. That’s because my next roadblock came when it was time to finalize my application. Data 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 in Texas. It took 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 cursory “Q&A” except for a question about tobacco usage that did not differentiate between cigars and cigarettes.

After receiving my information, the operator told me there were nine plans available for me. I was ecstatic and began to scribble notes.

She assured me 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 the 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, 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. 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 on how to do this. When I figured out it meant simply typing in my name, my application was not accepted. 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, where an operator told me that I should send a copy of my passport or my driver’s license so my identity could be confirmed. Huh? I protested, noting that would mean a several day turnaround. The alternative 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 onto 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. Were I dealing with Amazon or Orbitz, that “notice” would have been imbedded in the message itself. 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 e-mail explanation. None has arrived. Out of curiosity, I asked if she had a record of my prior calls. She said six. Wrong again. It’s about double that.

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