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Success Is Slow For Health Insurance Exchanges in Twin States 

President Barack Obama, standing with supporters of his health care law, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, on the initial rollout of the health care overhaul. Obama acknowledged that the widespread problems with his health care law's rollout are unacceptable, as the administration scrambles to fix the cascade of computer issues. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama, standing with supporters of his health care law, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, on the initial rollout of the health care overhaul. Obama acknowledged that the widespread problems with his health care law's rollout are unacceptable, as the administration scrambles to fix the cascade of computer issues. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

State and federal officials are continuing to address glitches in the online insurance marketplaces that launched two weeks ago under “Obamacare,” although relatively few consumers have signed up for coverage.

In Vermont, 7,031 individuals have set up an account and 950 people have actually selected an insurance plan online, according to Emily Yahr, spokeswoman for the state’s marketplace, Vermont Health Connect.

That includes 359 people who have signed up for Medicaid and Dr. Dynasaur, the state insurance program for children, but does not include people who have submitted paper applications.

Technically, nobody will be enrolled for coverage until next month when invoices go out and customers pay their premiums, Yahr said. Vermont’s ultimate goal is to have 100,000 people buy private insurance plans and another 170,000 sign up for Medicaid through the marketplace, the only place where uninsured Vermonters and small business owners can buy coverage.

Consumers have until Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage that begins on Jan. 1.

No figures were available in New Hampshire, where the federal government is running the state’s exchange.

Enrollment statistics likely won’t be revealed until mid-November as federal officials pull together data about enrollment through paper, online and call centers, verify information with insurers and collect data from the three dozen states relying on the HealthCare.gov website for its insurance marketplace, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS.

Given the technical problems and the glut of information that consumers have to absorb, few people on either side of the Connecticut River seem ready to buy coverage.

“It’s kind of a little bit of a blurry environment for the consumers ... and with the navigators,” said Armando Alfonzo, executive director of Good Neighbor Health Clinic in White River Junction, one of the “navigator” organizations guiding consumers through the enrollment process.

Good Neighbor has received around 20 calls from people who wanted to come to the clinic and get in-person help with enrolling for insurance, Alfonzo said.

Of those, only one person was prepared to choose an insurance plan.

Alfonzo knows of no one who has been able to complete the process of enrolling for coverage online at VermontHealthConnect.gov. Users are able to enter their personal information on the website, but the website routinely crashes during income verification, he said.

The problems occur when Vermont’s system has to interact with the federal system, he said. Good Neighbor has been distributing paper applications to consumers and answering questions over the phone, but until the engineers can work out the bugs, Alfonzo said he is in no rush to get people enrolled online.

“We’re sort of waiting and seeing, but not with our arms crossed,” Alfonzo said. “We’re providing information and assisting people.”

In New Hampshire, officials at Bi-State Primary Care Association are reporting similar experiences, with the organization’s navigators focusing on consumer education and helping people with paper applications, but not doing much online enrollment. To date, Bi-State navigators have had “252 direct contacts with consumers,” according to Bi-State’s chief operating officer, Lori Real.

“Navigators are finding that some people are opting to fill out paper applications now instead of waiting to enroll online,” Real said in an email . “Other consumers are saying they will enroll online and will call if they need assistance.”

In an email to the Valley News on Monday, a CMS spokeswoman said HealthCare.gov was being improved every day to allow consumers to preview plan information, access a downloadable application and find in-person help.

“We’re giving users more information to make the decision that’s right for them about how to apply and enroll in affordable health coverage,” said CMS spokeswoman Courtney Jenkins.

President Obama and federal health officials acknowledged there was much more work to be done.

On Monday, a blog post on HealthCare.gov welcomed feedback from consumers through the website and social media.

“We know using HealthCare.gov has been frustrating for many Americans. The initial consumer experience of HealthCare.gov has not lived up to the expectations of the American people. We are committed to doing better,” the post said. “We’ve been gathering feedback since the day we launched — from our customer service representatives, social media channels, and online surveys and comments. And we’re listening.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.

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