Plenty of Browsers at Obamacare Exchanges, but Not Clear How Many Buyers

Millions of Americans visited the online health-insurance exchanges despite widespread tech glitches

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Leigh Vogel / Corbis

Beverly Purcell, health insurance consultant in Aspen, Colorado navigates through, the Obamacare website that launched Oct. 1, 2013.

Millions of Americans visited websites for Obamacare health-insurance exchanges when they launched on Tuesday, leading many of the sites to crash from heavy volume. Despite the clear interest, federal officials would not say how many people actually signed up for new coverage.

During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) refused to disclose the number of people who bought insurance through the online marketplaces that are a centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). “We have just decided not to release that yet,” said Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The reticence of officials could be rooted in the serious computer glitches that bedeviled the exchange websites on their first day of operation. The federal website that manages enrollment for 34 states that have opted not to independently run their own exchanges counted visits from 2.8 million people on Tuesday, according to HHS, but greeted many visitors with an error message or long wait. Some state-run exchange websites opened late due to computer snafus or crashed during the day. On Twitter, state exchanges apologized to consumers and asked for patience while glitches were resolved. In the face of these problems, many visitors to the sites may have given up before being able to shop for insurance.

For all the attention on the launch, there is time to fix the errors. An open-enrollment period that began on Oct. 1 will last until March 31, and the earliest new coverage will begin is Jan. 1, 2014.

(MORE: Obamacare Exchanges Open for Business: What You Need to Know)

Although Tavenner would not release enrollment data, HHS said consumers have already signed up for insurance through both the federal exchange website and every state exchange in operation. As the launch day wore on and states ironed out some of the kinks in their sites, many touted their Web traffic and enrollment figures. Kentucky officials said nearly 60,000 people visited its exchange during the first 15 hours it was operational. The Covered California exchange reported receiving an average of 5,000 page views per minute on Tuesday. And Minnesota said exchange-consumer-assistance workers fielded more than 1,700 calls.

Amid a government shutdown caused by Republican opposition to ACA, the GOP tried to frame Tuesday’s exchange glitches as proof that the law is unworkable. Senate Republicans sent out a press release detailing press accounts of the computer failures under the headline “Obamacare Crashing Across America.”

President Obama pushed back in a televised speech from the Rose Garden, noting that the shutdown didn’t prevent the exchanges from launching on schedule, if not in midseason form.

“I know it’s strange that one party would make keeping people uninsured the centerpiece of their agenda, but that apparently is what it is,” Obama said. “And of course what’s stranger still is that shutting down our government doesn’t accomplish their stated goal.”

(MORE: Obama Warns of Health Care Law ‘Glitches’)

The President delivered his remarks surrounded by a group of Americans he said would get new insurance coverage under ACA. At least one member of the group, according to Politico, wasn’t able to sign up for coverage on Tuesday because his state exchange website was not working.