By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Missourians hoping to find out whether the Affordable Care Act lives up to its name were greeted with lengthy delays Tuesday morning as consumers nationwide flocked to a new online health insurance marketplace.
Those seeking information from the government-backed insurance exchange were advised to "please wait" for several minutes while the website handled heavy traffic and thanked for their patience. After successfully entering the site by creating a username and password, an Associated Press reporter encountered further waits when prompted to respond to security questions required before plan information could be accessed. Hours later, the wait persisted.
The online insurance exchange in Missouri is being operated by the federal government after state lawmakers and then voters rejected a state-run system. Unlike in many other states, few details about the plans' premium costs, deductible levels and other specifics were disclosed in advance of Tuesday's kickoff.
The delay made for some frantic preparations by the certified application counselors hired by the government to help consumers through the process, as well as the government-approved "navigators" who guide applicants through their choices from among private insurers.
Consumers have until March to enroll, or by Dec. 15 if they want coverage starting Jan. 1. The online marketplaces are for those who don't receive employer-sponsored health coverage or certain residents eligible for workplace plans but looking for better deals.
The online benefits calculator also will provide Missourians a glimpse into the amount of government tax credits they can expect to receive to offset actual out-of-pocket policy costs. But those subsidies won't be available to adults below the poverty level because the law assumes those people would get coverage under Medicaid expansion. Missouri is among 26 states that have not expanded coverage under the federal insurance program for poor, another key part of the contentious federal law.
Missouri had about 835,000 uninsured people in 2010 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
At the Betty Jean Kerr People's Health Center in north St. Louis, a community clinic where one-third of the patients are uninsured, the trained health counselors greeted prospective applicants Tuesday morning with balloons, candy and basic plan information. Center president Dwayne Butler said he wants the outreach on government-backed insurance to extend to broader efforts at preventive care in some of the city's most distressed neighborhoods
"We are the custodians of our community's health," he said. "We'd love to get people to register. But we also want to get our community excited, and elevate the health conversation."
Beneath the state's largely hands-off approach to the health insurance exchange, an undercurrent of more forceful opposition to President Barack Obama's signature policy measure remains. Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder is encouraging "active resistance" to the program, urging people last week to register their objections by not signing up for coverage.
In advance of Monday's roll out, state health care advocates had warned consumers to be patient and expect some possible technical glitches early on - a prediction that quickly came true.
Program details can be found online at www.healthcare.gov .
Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier