Rhode Islanders began signing up for health insurance Tuesday through the state's new marketplace, with heavy consumer interest temporarily crashing the website for some users.
Tuesday marked the first day residents and small businesses could enroll through HealthSource RI, the state's response to President Barack Obama's signature health care law. Coverage begins Jan. 1, the date when the vast majority of Americans will be required to have health insurance or face a penalty under the Affordable Care Act. Many people and some small businesses will be eligible for federal tax credits.
HealthSource RI Director Christine Ferguson said the website, where consumers can compare and purchase plans in the exchange, had more traffic than expected between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. about 6,000 page views a minute. She said the glitches were typical of the launch of any major technology initiative. Officials addressed the problem by increasing the site's capacity.
"There are going to be problems, and we'll fix them," Ferguson said at a press briefing at the HealthSource RI customer service center in Providence. "We feel like we're in really good shape. This has never been done before."
About 124,000 people are uninsured in Rhode Island, which has a population of just over 1 million. The state also is heavily marketing the exchange to its 30,000 small businesses, about half of which offer their employees coverage now.
Three insurance carriers are offering a total of 12 individual plans and 16 small group plans on HealthSource RI at healthsourceri.com. Exchange officials estimate that between 70,000 and 100,000 people will get coverage through the exchange by the end of next year.
Though some states released first-day enrollment figures, HealthSource RI did not make them immediately available. Ferguson said two of the first people to sign up visited the walk-in center and enrolled the old-fashioned way: on paper.
The center fielded nearly 1,900 calls by 5:30 p.m. and 30 people visited in person, according to Dara Chadwick, a spokeswoman for the exchange.
Ferguson expects peak enrollment in November and December.
"This is the starting line," she added.
In addition to getting coverage to more people, the new marketplace aims to bring change to the health care system that will ultimately lower costs through better, more efficient care.
"The long-run goal is to bring down costs and to provide more options," said Ferguson.
HealthSource RI was built and is being operated for now with more than $80 million in federal funds. Rhode Island will have to assume the costs beginning in 2015.
Ferguson said in advance of the launch that Rhode Island was one of a few states fully ready to open for enrollment.