Federal health exchange launches in Oklahoma

Sean MurphyAssociated Press
Federal health exchange launches in Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The launch of a federal health insurance marketplace that allows consumers to shop for and buy health insurance got off to a slow start across Oklahoma on Tuesday, but officials said that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Although there were scattered reports of problems logging into the new system and the federal website noted that heavy traffic was making the page slow to load, that isn’t unexpected on the first day of operation, said Chad Austin, who is overseeing 60 navigators who have been hired to help people use the website and shop for plans.

“The marketplace is opening across the United States, and there’s a lot of people in there right now,” said Austin, the navigator program coordinator for the Hugo, Okla.-based Little Dixie Community Action Agency, which was awarded a federal grant to hire the navigators.

To avoid a first-day rush as people began logging into the new system, Austin said navigators set up appointments with clients who were interested in getting on to the exchange to shop for insurance.

“I actually advised that some of us not make our first appointments until later in the week,” Austin said. “That way, we’ve got a couple of days to work through the system and any kinks in the system that might develop have a chance to get worked out.”

At a training session for people interested in learning more about the new federal Health Insurance Marketplace in northeast Oklahoma City, a bank of 20 computers sat empty and insurance company employees trained to answer questions from the public chatted among themselves.

No one from the public had visited the all-day event two hours after it began on Tuesday.

“I think people are waiting to learn more about the marketplace,” said John Williams, a spokesman for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Oklahoma, which has several plans for sale on the exchange and which sponsored Tuesday’s training session. “I think they’re waiting for the dust to settle.”

Alison Williams, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Primary Care Association, said about 80 navigators were busy Tuesday assisting consumers and that the launch was going “fairly smooth.”

About 640,000 Oklahoma residents, or 17 percent of the state’s population, currently have no health insurance. But the launch of the federal exchange has not been promoted by the state. Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Mary Fallin rejected the opportunity to create a state-based exchange or expand Medicaid to tens of thousands of Oklahoma’s working poor, a decision hailed by conservatives in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Because Oklahoma opted not to create a state-based exchange for consumers to shop for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, the new federal Health Insurance Marketplace was established in the state.

State employees have been directed not to answer questions about the new federal exchange, but instead to direct citizens to federal officials.

Fallin on Tuesday withheld judgment on whether the launch of the federal marketplace would be helpful for Oklahomans looking to purchase health insurance.

“It is federal law, so there will be people who have the opportunity to go into the exchange and have the option of going online to compare plans — if it all works out,” Fallin said. “We’re still waiting today to see how the new launch has gone.”