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Health insurance exchanges hampered by technical difficulties Posted: November 6th, 2013

By Maryalene LaPonsie

"We have a lot of visitors on the site right now. Please stay on this page."

Those were the words greeting many individuals when they tried to access new government health insurance exchanges last week. Mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the exchanges are online marketplaces designed to help consumers find health insurance plans.

However, the exchanges were apparently overwhelmed during their first week online. Even for those who were able to make it through to the application page, technical difficulties resulted in many submissions not being accepted. Likely adding to the confusion was a federal government shutdown which restricted the ability of the Department of Health and Human Services to communicate updates about the status of the exchanges to the media and other outlets

7 million visitors in two days

Despite the government shutdown -- a result of a budget impasse on Capitol Hill -- the health insurance exchanges launched as planned.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took to Twitter to declare the new marketplaces a success. On Oct. 3, she tweeted: "7 mill visitors in two days. More than visit @SouthwestAir site in a month. People are excited to #GetCovered."

While many were able to get through, not all states had a smooth start. The New York Times reported Maryland had to resort to taking paper applications after its website became disconnected. Meanwhile, the Rhode Island site crashed and the Washington exchange was taken offline briefly as both were overwhelmed by visitors. In New York, the server capacity had to be doubled to keep up with traffic.

Affordable health insurance online

Although many states are administering their own health insurance exchanges, the portal for consumers is the federal website HealthCare.gov. Once there, consumers can learn more about their medical insurance options and complete an application for health insurance coverage.

While the exchanges are open for enrollment at this time, coverage won't actually begin until Jan. 1, 2014. Even then, consumers will have until March 31, 2014 to sign up before the open enrollment period ends.

Created by the health reform law, the exchanges are not only intended to be a convenient way to shop for coverage but also provide access to affordable health insurance. Individuals and families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty limit will be eligible for tax credits to help offset the cost of premiums.