HARRISBURG - Pennsylvanians picked up telephones, surfed websites and sought out information in person Tuesday, the first day to enroll in health insurance under President Barack Obama's signature health care law, although glitches apparently made enrollment nearly impossible for many.
Telephones at Hamilton Health Center in Harrisburg rang steadily after the center's phone number was printed in the local newspaper as an outlet for information about the new online health insurance exchange designed for people without insurance.
"Our phones have been ringing off the hook," said the center's CEO, Jeannine Peterson. "Primarily, people just want information. 'We've heard that the Affordable Care Act is coming. We've heard about the exchange, but what does that mean to the everyday person?'"
Pennsylvania is one of 36 states whose online exchanges are being run by the federal government after Gov. Tom Corbett, an opponent of the health care law, declined to take on the job. All told, 56 plans are available to Pennsylvanians on the insurance exchange.
Coverage begins Jan. 1 and the initial enrollment period continues until March 31.
In Philadelphia, Independence Blue Cross parked an Internet-capable truck with 14 computer work stations at the Rising Sun Health Center in North Philadelphia to distribute information on its 13 plans on the exchange.
One man, 43, who lost his health insurance when he lost his job came to the Independence Blue Cross truck for information, as did a woman in her mid-30s who had lost her health insurance and, with it, access to her neurologist, said Brian Lobley, Independence's senior vice president for marketing and consumer business.
She found that she qualified for a federal tax credit that would wipe out her premium and that the neurologist was in a plan network.
"I think she felt relieved that she would be able to go visit him again," Lobley said.
The glitches Tuesday on the federal government's web portal, healthcare.gov, seemed to prevent many people from signing up, and Lobley said Independence Blue Cross had scheduled call backs with people who had sought to enroll or, at least, log in to the online exchange.
Healthcare.gov is supposed to act as a clearinghouse for information on the 56 approved plans, such as how much they will cost and which doctors and hospitals each one covers. It also is the place where one can qualify for the various federal subsidies that lower the cost of health insurance plans.
Officials from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said they were pleased with the strong consumer interest - 2.8 million people visited the federal government's online site - and they were working on the glitches. They declined to reveal how many people actually succeeded in signing up for coverage.
At another Independence Blue Cross outreach event at a Philadelphia transit hub, Ralph Kellum took promotional information because he said he knew a lot of people who would be interested in getting insurance.
"A lot of people ... (who) have the pre-existing problems couldn't get insurance. Now they can," Kellum said. "Well, supposedly they can."