Harbor health officials finding state healthcare website glitchy

Implementation of the new health care law on Grays Harbor has had some prodigious problems since its rollout Oct 1. Two of the three Grays Harbor locations designated to help citizens navigate the new health care exchange, including “Apple Health” — the state’s new term for Medicaid — have not been able to sign up a single person through the state’s website since then, according to the officials assisting with the changes.

All of them say public demand has been high.

At the county health building in Aberdeen, two computer stations, meant to be filled with bodies signing up for health insurance or Medicaid under the new health care law, have sat almost entirely empty for the past month. As of this Thursday morning, not a single person had been able to sign up there through the state exchange’s website. However, they did receive notice Thursday morning from the state that the website should now be working.

“We’re doing better than they are nationally. However, it’s been very similar to the experience nationwide,” said Grays Harbor County Public Health & Social Services Director Joan Brewster. She said they have received error messages ever since the rollout date of Oct. 1.

The state’s website has had some issues for those who have been able to use it statewide, but seemingly not to the extent that officials have seen on Grays Harbor. The issues have included wrong subsidies data affecting 8,000 applicants (which the Washington Health Benefit Exchange said was corrected as of Oct. 23), but has otherwise been reviewed relatively well among websites nationwide for functionality and high enrollment.

Thursday, a notice on the Washington Health Benefit Exchange said the website is available after being down for a day or so due to a federal data services outage.

“There are some bugs that we are continuing to iron out with the website. Our IT team here is continuing to focus on addressing those issues and has scheduled several days of maintenance in the upcoming weeks,” said Bethany Frey, a communications officer for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, in an email to The Daily World on Tuesday.

On Grays Harbor, the Olympic Area Agency on Aging’s Aberdeen office is the only one of the three locations currently set up to assist with the exchange that has had the ability to sign people up through the website.

“There have certainly been some bumps and hiccups … But for the most part we’re up and running,” said Director of Information and Assistance Mark Harvey, who was surprised to learn that both the Grays Harbor County Public Health Department and Sea Mar Community Health Center have only been able to use paper applications thus far, although he acknowledged they have seen a number of customers coming from those sites with their paper applications on hand.

“That must be really frustrating,” he said.

After the first few days of technical issues, O3A has more or less been problem free, aside from a shutdown Tuesday due to federal administrative changes.

Brewster said the problems the county health department has been experiencing are more of an “inconvenience” as long as they are fixed relatively soon. For the estimated 11,300 uninsured individuals in Grays Harbor County who would qualify for insurance under the exchange or Apple Health under the new law, coverage will not start until Jan. 1, 2014 — unless they are a new applicant who is a child, pregnant woman or part of a family medical Medicaid/Apple Health program, in which case coverage will begin on the first day of the month in which the application was submitted. Thus far, they have been able to cover 250 “newly eligible” clients for Apple Health around the county, said Brewster. That’s out of a target of 2,002, she said, or 12. 5 percent, which she said is “good considering the technical issues.” Those who have been able to submit applications have been doing so using paper applications, or were able to access the website elsewhere, said Brewster.

Frey, of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, said the only countywide data available right now is through Medicaid.

“We are looking at early November for a comprehensive October look back that should include county data and other numbers,” she said.

Angelina Munez, a customer service representative for Sea Mar, which typically caters to low-income patients, said in addition to the inability to access the website since Oct. 1, there has also been difficulty faxing the application information.

“It’s been taking a while, I think because everyone has been trying to get through,” she said, adding that on one Friday she got so frustrated she saved everything and sent it all the next day. “Because I figured no one would be trying to fax that day … and, yeah, they all went through.”

She said she has seen up to 14 people a day since Oct. 1, and that “about 75 percent” of what she has dealt with has been Apple Health applications, though she said the agency does assist with finding private insurance through the exchange as well. Aside from issues with the website and faxing, Munez said all of her applicants — once they are sent — have received notification on their status within two and a half weeks at the latest.

Some of the more disappointed customers, according to Brewster and Munez, are those who used to frequent the state’s Community Services Offices for their health needs, and are now instead being directed toward Sea Mar, the county health department, or the O3A to apply for Apple Health instead.

Many of these are what are considered “welcome mat” applicants, or those who would have been eligible for Medicaid prior to the implementation of the exchange. Both said the inability to help more effectively due to the website glitches, especially this group and those with immediate health care needs, has been frustrating. Those who were already insured, or were uninsured and looking to sign up through the exchange, have also been frequenting local insurance agencies, which are options through the state exchange.

“The phone has been ringing off the hook,” said Durney Insurance benefits manager Monica Ewing, who said she is the only person within the company assisting people with the health exchange. “I love that part, but I wish some of the other aspects were going a bit more smoothly.”

Ewing is scheduled for appointments to assist people with the exchange — some current clients, but many who are new — through November, she said. She too has often encountered issues with the website, but has received assistance from the Washington Health Benefit Exchange that has been “very helpful.”

“I wish there were two of me,” said Ewing of her work load since Oct. 1. She said it is quite different from where she had assumed her life would be after the health care law’s implementation, for which “navigators” were hired — paid for by taxpayer dollars — to help people enroll in one of the new health insurance plans. “I thought I would be unemployed … but I think they realized they needed agents who are licensed and trained.”

Wednesday, after learning the state’s website is working for the O3A, but not for the county’s department or for SeaMar, Brewster said she was not quite sure as to why it was, but that her department plans to look into the issue further.

“We’ll troubleshoot for sure,” she said.