Open Market

Carol Witter, outreach enrollment specialist, provides Ethel Husser, of North Charleston, with health care information during the first day of the new insurance exchanges Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2013, at Franklin C. Fetter Family Health Center in Charleston.

After three years of hype and one government shutdown later, the federal health insurance marketplace opened for enrollment Tuesday — but not without a few major stumbles, making it very difficult for South Carolinians to actually sign up for a policy using the new platform.

A message on the marketplace website explained early Tuesday and several times throughout the afternoon: “We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we’re working to make your experience here better. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience!”

Another message indicated the website struggled to create accounts for those who needed to sign up for insurance, a mandatory step to enroll in a plan online.

“It’s busy. We’ve been logged in since we got here and it’s just still — we can’t get on,” said Carol Witter, an outreach enrollment specialist recently hired by the Franklin C. Fetter Family Health Center in Charleston to help patients research their insurance options.

The marketplace is one of the major initiatives of the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare. Its launch was not delayed by Republican efforts in the U.S. House of Representatives to postpone the law’s implementation. The federal government shut down many of its operations Tuesday after Congress failed to pass a budget resolution, but the insurance marketplace opened for business as planned.

Four insurance companies are offering policies for South Carolinians to purchase on the new marketplace. Coverage under these health insurance plans will begin Jan. 1.

S.C. Department of Insurance Director Ray Farmer said his agency fielded calls on Tuesday from residents complaining about the website’s functionality.

“They’re having difficulty getting on the website,” Farmer said. “We’ve had a few more calls than normal, but not many. My guess is our consumers will wait and let things shake out a little bit before they attempt to get on the website.”

Problems with enrollment weren’t unique to South Carolina. The Associated Press reported issues in several other states too, including Illinois, New York and Rhode Island. Some states are operating their own insurance marketplaces; South Carolina opted into the federally facilitated marketplace.

A spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley said her office took more than 40 calls about the insurance marketplace on Tuesday.

S.C. Medicaid Director Tony Keck said his office also logged some complaints about congestion on the federal website, but added, “We haven’t been tracking that very much.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 2.8 million people had visited the website between midnight and 4 p.m. Tuesday. The federal government cannot yet determine how many South Carolinians accessed the federal marketplace Tuesday, or how many residents here purchased an insurance policy, an HHS spokesman said.

Enrollment will remain open on through March 31. Residents without health insurance, approximately 755,000 in South Carolina alone, must sign up for a policy by then or face a $95 fine.

James Eastman, director of Charleston-based Colophon New Media, said the marketplace website was likely just overwhelmed with too much traffic on its first day.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad website,” Eastman said. “It may not be as well optimized as it could be.”

The federal insurance marketplace is also accessible by phone, 1-800-318-2596. Estimated wait times to speak to a marketplace representative by phone varied from less than five minutes to 30 minutes on Tuesday.

In a prepared statement, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has encouraged “everyone who does not currently have health insurance to go to the Health Insurance Marketplace to find health insurance that fits their budget and meets their needs.”

“Now, it is easy to find and purchase an affordable health care plan, and everyone can have the peace of mind that comes from knowing you and your family are protected,” Riley said in the statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.