MYRTLE BEACH — Some area residents on Tuesday joined many across the country who were frustrated in their efforts to shop for health insurance on the first day of the new federal insurance marketplace.
Residents said they either were unable to access the healthcare.gov website or to navigate through the process if they managed to get into it.
“I tried off and on for about three hours, and I’m done – I’m going to wait a couple weeks,” said Jon Henderson, who said he left the Horry County Sheriff’s Office in February after seven years because of health problems.
Henderson said the county offered him insurance, but it was more than $400 a month, which he couldn’t afford with a wife and five children at home. He was denied disability through Medicaid, which covers the kids, he said, but he needs a more affordable option for him and his wife. He is out of work because of his health, he said, yet he can’t afford to go to a doctor.
Henderson said after a lot of waiting Tuesday, he reached the third screen on the site to set up an account. He said he was directed to set up his security questions, but the site wouldn’t give him the proper prompt, so he called the phone number listed for support services.
“The lady said she can’t even get on the website – I got further than she did,” Henderson said. “She blatantly said the site is not equipped for the number of people trying to use it, so there are going to be problems.”
Tim Lathan said he spent more than three hours on the healthcare site, never was able to set up an account and is not optimistic about the program. Lathan, who works at Global Ad Distributors, said his hours were cut to 24 per week, as were his wife’s, who works for Dollar General. He said he doesn’t think he can afford the marketplace insurance, but the couple have a 2-year-old and another child due in December.
“I’m not optimistic,” he said. “I probably won’t even try again.”
The state’s Medicaid agency has been fielding questions. State officials said that agency has ramped up two call centers to handle them – expanding its existing call center for Medicaid patients and launching a new one last month specifically for health reform questions. State Medicaid Director Tony Keck said its operators were able to easily handle their call load.
The new 2-1-1 line experienced an increase in calls – 106 over seven hours, nearly three times more than the same period a week ago – while the other one saw a decrease. More than 1,000 people called it, but that’s several hundred fewer compared with those hours last Tuesday, said Colleen Mullis, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
South Carolina is among the 36 states that chose not to run its own exchange, leaving that responsibility to the federal government. The state spent no money advertising the law or how to sign up.
People without health insurance will be fined starting in 2014, but that doesn’t kick in right away. While the exchange went live Tuesday, at www.healthcare.gov, the uninsured have until December to sign up for coverage that starts Jan. 1 and until March 31 to avoid a penalty.
In South Carolina, four insurers – three when you consider that Blue Cross and Blue Shield and its affiliate – are offering a total of 52 plans to individuals and families over the exchange. That includes eight “catastrophic” plans, which the federal law limits to those under 30 and some low-income residents.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield and its licensee, BlueChoice, as well as the health insurance cooperative Consumers’ Choice – created by the federal law – are offering plans statewide. Coventry Health Care, which was bought earlier this year by Aetna, is offering plans in 11 of the state’s 46 counties.
Organizations recruited by the federal government to help people navigate the process appear to largely still be in the planning stages in South Carolina.
Area libraries reported only a few questions came in Tuesday about the insurance, with most of those inquiring about the web address.
Chapin Memorial Library has 24 computers for the public’s use and has information about enrolling in the insurance marketplace, but there only were two inquiries all day, said Briget Livingston, library director. She said it still may be too early for some people to begin the process, a thought echoed at the Socastee branch of the Horry County Memorial Library.
“We were kind of expecting people maybe the later part of the week,” said branch librarian Lee Brown. “People are still pretty upset about the government shutting down and just may be getting their questions together.”
Henderson also is upset about the government shutdown – “I think they’re acting like spoiled brats,” he said – and is skeptical about getting the healthcare website to work anytime soon.
“If there are 50 million people going without insurance that have to select something, you might need to get some technical support – it’s kind of absurd,” he said. “We’re trying to play by their rules, but their rules don’t work.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.