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Iowans note delays seeking health care information

DES MOINES (AP) — Many consumers hoping to shop for insurance through Iowa’s new health care exchange when it opened Tuesday encountered the same error messages and long waits as those in other states.

Ken Ridge, a 62-year-old retiree from Clive, said he wanted to compare his current policy with those offered through the state’s new online marketplace but was unable to create an account in the hours after it opened for business.

“The system has so much traffic that I wasn’t able to do it,” Ridge said. “They have a button where you can talk to someone in chat mode, but that didn’t work. Any system that has many millions of people trying to find out information at one time would have difficulty.”

Ridge’s experience was echoed by consumers throughout the U.S. who reported having trouble accessing the website or reaching someone who could help them on a toll-free Affordable Care Act phone number that was set up.

Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said that more than 1 million people had visited the website in the last day — five times more users than have ever been on the at one time.

Violet Menke, 62, of Ankeny, doesn’t have a computer and tried to get information by phone Tuesday morning. After 90 minutes and several phone calls she became frustrated and called her own insurance company to get more information. When she called the toll-free information line she was told her wait would be 30 minutes.

Broadlawns Hospital saw between 50 and 60 people Tuesday morning who wanted help with the new exchange. The hospital’s 12 financial aid staffers have been trained as certified application counselors, said Senior Vice President Mikki Stier.

“We do have people showing up and it’s a very slow process with some delays. It’s really hard to get on the health exchange. It’s very, very busy,” she said.

Visiting Nurse Services of Iowa, one of the few Iowa groups tasked with training “navigators” to help people buy insurance through the exchange, received only one call as of Tuesday morning, spokeswoman Linda Clauson said.

The federal government has provided $67 million for organizations to hire and train navigators. They must undergo more than 30 hours of training and testing, much of which had not been completed in time for Tuesday’s rollout of the insurance marketplace.

“We don’t have everyone trained yet. Some of those processes of getting certified we’re still working through,” Clauson said.

In the meantime, information will be taken from individuals seeking help and VNS navigators will call them back and assist them.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland has one navigator in training and will fill four more positions, spokeswoman Shelby Cloke said. The organization is one of many working in Iowa to help educate people about the new insurance program.

“There is a lot of confusion about the health care benefits of the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “Many have questions and concerns, and our team is able to provide them the information they need.”

AARP Iowa has held similar educational public outreach meetings and found many people in need of information.

“People are trying to get some clarity on what it means for them and their families,” said Anthony Carroll, a spokesman for the group. “They’re anxious to see price information. People are anxious to use it.”

Under Iowa’s plan, which still awaits final federal government approval, those with incomes of up to 100 percent of the poverty line — under about $24,000 annually for a family of four — would go on a new state-run health plan with benefits similar to those offered to state workers. People with incomes from 101 to 138 percent of poverty — between about $24,000 and $32,000 annually for a family of four— would get private health plans on the new health care exchanges; those premiums would be paid for with the federal dollars.

Starting in 2015, some participants could be subject to small monthly premiums, but those could be waived if they complete certain health goals or in cases of hardship.

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