The much ballyhooed rollout of Cover Oregon's health insurance options for previously uninsured Oregonians passed Tuesday with more shrugs than excited bravos.
Limited to general browsing on Cover Oregon's website, those seeking to sign up for insurance could do little more than enter the applicant and family names. Technical problems prevented people from signing up.
Statewide, more than 75,000 unique visitors had gone to coveroregon.com as of 4 p.m. Tuesday. They were able to scroll through insurance plans and prices, and find certified insurance agents and community organizations to help them start the process of buying coverage as mandated by the federal government.
They couldn't enroll, however, because the online system was not correctly determining eligibility for Medicaid, Healthy Kids and tax credits. More than 2,500 people called the Cover Oregon hotline Tuesday.
"I was going to look at it (the website)," Medford resident Kathy Jenkins said. "But after I heard I couldn't, I just decided to wait until later. I was supposed to be able to compare plans, but I think they're all going to be very similar."
Officials at Cover Oregon headquarters Tuesday repeatedly emphasized that Jan. 1 is the key date. That's when coverage begins, and individuals have until Dec. 15 to enroll in order to be eligible on Jan. 1. Open enrollment will continue after that, but the insurance start date will come later for those who sign up after mid-December.
Cover Oregon spokesperson Amy Fauver said there's still ample time for registrations, even with a truncated start.
"When it came to the Oregon Health Plan, Healthy Kids or tax credits, we wanted to make the correct determination," Fauver said. "Making sure those who were getting no-cost access was too important; getting it close was not good enough."
There are an estimated 560,000 Oregonians lacking health insurance. Starting Jan. 1, people making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level — $23,550 a year for a family of four — will be eligible for the state's Medicaid program. Anyone else who doesn't get insurance from an employer or Medicare will be able to purchase it through Cover Oregon, and people with low and moderate incomes will qualify for federal subsidies.
The Cover Oregon website is designed to be a one-stop shopping place that allows people to compare the benefits and prices offered by scores of individual and small-group health plans.
While the system was not fully up to speed, staffs trained to work with applicants at Community Health Center and La Clinica handled phone calls and made appointments.
"We are letting them know the portal is not fully available for eligibility right now," said Erin Scow, an outreach coordinator at Community Health Center. "We're limited to what we can put into the portal. Right now, it's just an individual's name and who is in the household for those individuals and then we have to save it."
She said the center's outreach staff does have paper applications and PDF options. But that route comes with a 45-day determination period for eligibility.
"It's not instant like the portal would be," Scow said.
She said CHC handled a dozen or more calls concerning the insurance exchange and a handful of walk-in queries on Monday, followed by a few phone calls Tuesday morning. The center is also booking appointments with outreach workers once the system is working.
The scene was similar at LaClinica, where spokeswoman Julie Wurth said the clinic's staff was setting up appointments in response to the delay.
Insurance agent Les Cracraft of United Risk Solutions in Medford said he's been telling clients not to expect to fully use the portal until the middle to end of October.
"I'm not trying to be negative, I'm just trying to manage expectations," Cracraft said. "I'm pragmatic. This is a huge new program and the infrastructure is bigger than anything I've seen before."
He said he doesn't expect the process to be up to full speed for another month.
"We've been trying not to get clients hyped up about something not going into effect until January 2014," Cracraft said. "I can understand why they might be frustrated, but there is no immediate urgency. We want to tamp down the anxiety as much as possible."
Cover Oregon continues to train people to assist consumers. Marian Traina of Central Point is waiting for the call to step forward to do just that. She is connected with the Oregon State University Extension Office for Jackson and Josephine counties.
"Everything is too new and there is so much turmoil going on with everything right now," Traina said. "The one thing people need to know is don't panic. There is a lot of time to take care of getting enrolled in the program. There is a lot of time to understand what is available. We've been trained not to make decisions for people but to help them look through what is available."
Traina admitted she had her own fears in preparing for her role.
"I took the training with great anxiety and I came out without the fear," she said. "We all fear the unknown. But it's going to be a very nice thing."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness. The Associated Press contributed to this story.