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Students react to glitches in insurance exchange

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series on the Affordable Care Act’s impact on UTEP students.

The Health Insurance Marketplace launched on Oct. 1 despite a partial government shutdown. Since the opening of the Marketplace, the website has been inundated with glitches, traffic overload and temporary shutdowns for maintenance.

According to information released by the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the Marketplace, the website has been swamped by tens of thousands of people attempting to access the site. During peak hours, the website has logged more than 200,000 individual IP addresses attempting to create an account.

These issues have made the adoption of the individual mandate difficult for anyone attempting to purchase insurance before the year-end deadline.
For students, the issue of health coverage can be even more tricky.

An earlier Affordable Care Act mandate extended family healthcare to cover individuals, up to age 26, on their parents’ insurance.

For those without family insurance or who will be 26 or older in 2014, the individual mandate requires insurance or they may face a tax penalty.

“This doesn’t even take into consideration that I may not even want, need, or even afford to have health insurance. This is another choice of mine taken away,” said Rudy Alarcon, senior media advertising major.

There are subsidies available for individuals purchasing health coverage, but these start at a $45,960 income level for individuals and $94,200 for a household of four. Full-time students may not be able to afford individual coverage and might have to pay the full face-value of a premium without the much-hyped tax-breaks. Some students may have been eligible for Medicaid, but Texas has opted not to expand the Medicaid program.

“As far as how students will be impacted is very unclear, especially here at UTEP,” said Tanya Sue Maestas, senior biological sciences major. “Hopefully, forums will be provided to help both students with and without insurance to understand the logistics behind changes to their current plans or if they will have to enroll in a different plan of some sort.”

Individuals will have until Jan. 1, 2014 to obtain coverage through employers or the marketplace before tax penalties are incurred. The Healthcare
Marketplace states that there is a grace period of three months before the individual mandate is fully required in 2014.

Citizens who have not purchased health insurance will be taxed $95 or 1 percent of their household income, whichever is higher.

This level of interest has been a double-edged sword for the fledgling program.

Attempts to create an account or input information often result in errors on the website. Still, based on HHS-reported traffic patterns, thousands of individuals have registered and begun their search for health coverage.

Exact numbers of registrants have not been released and reported registrations greatly vary by state.

HHS offers a call center solution for individuals having problems with the system.

Tanya, a Healthcare Marketplace telephone operator who would not provide her last name, said that difficulties arise due to “high volumes of people trying to apply, so it is giving people an error.”

She also said that individuals who do not wish to wait for the digital Marketplace may request a paper application online through a navigator or by phone.

Paper applications are almost identical to their electronic counterparts and typically take two to three weeks to arrive.

The Prospector’s Guide to Navigating the Marketplace

Without preparation, the Marketplace sign-up can be a daunting experience.

The Prospector staff attempted to register in order to better understand how students would navigate the site.

It can take a significant amount of time to access the website. Attempts to register frequently lead to a holding page that informs users about the traffic issue and refreshes when an open space is available.

Users must register, then verify with an email before attempting to log in.

During “non-peak” hours the site is taken down for maintenance. The published hours are 1 a.m. Eastern Time, though users may experience it earlier.

The best hours for access are during the early morning hours.

With menus sliding around, the website must access additional resources, which put even more lag on already overtaxed servers.

After completing a standard questionnaire of demographic information, the website asks a series of “proofing questions” that establish identity. These questions are meant to prevent computerized bots from registering automatically. The questions may seem redundant and some are nonsensical.

Users then must verify their citizenship status with social security information.

There are additional subsidies available for individuals who are caretakers, receive alimonies or pay student loan interest.

The site asks about income, which may require pay stubs and W-2 forms. There is a prompt that asks for the user’s permission to allow the Marketplace to use income data, including tax returns, to establish premium information. There is an option to opt out of this tracking program, however significant changes in income could affect subsidies and eligibility for household members.

All of these questions are rewarded with another loading screen before a PDF becomes available for download. The “Eligibility Notice” is a 12-page document that further explains the separate processes for applying for Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicare, Medicaid or other health programs.

After more than an hour of loading screens, menus and demographic listings, the insurance exchange finally opens up. For the state of Texas, reports only about a dozen companies offering plans. Major providers like Blue Cross Blue Shield and Aetna are represented with smaller companies like Molina Marketplace, which also have offerings.

S. David Ramirez may be reached at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
S. David Ramirez, Staff Reporter
S. David Ramirez is currently an English and American Literature major wrapping up his final year at UTEP. He has written for the Lakefront, the Thing Itself literary magazine, the Tejano Tribune and The Prospector. When not striving for journalistic excellence, he helps organize fandom conventions around the Lone Star State, including El Paso Wintercon and San Japan, San Antonio’s largest Japanese culture and anime convention. He hopes to spend his academic career educating the public about the dangers of Jane Austen and the medicinal benefits of reading the Brontë sisters. His research in popular culture studies has taken him across the nation and he hopes to continue presenting findings on music, media and literature at future conferences. David says his success is due to a pact with the dread Lord Cthlulhu of R’ley fame, but he may just be reading too much H. P. Lovecraft in his off time. He is currently applying to graduate schools for communication rhetoric or writing and rhetoric. If you, or someone you know, is on these admissions boards, please contact him directly.
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Students react to glitches in insurance exchange