Many articles and comments have been written about the trials and tribulations of the trying to access the Federal Marketplace (formerly known as an “exchange”) beginning on October 1. Like many consumers, consultants and researchers, I wanted to see what the Federal Marketplace looked like and get a sense of how well (or poorly) complex health insurance information was being presented to many first-time buyers.
Wide range of issues encountered
It was not surprising that problems were encountered. The secrecy during the development process (i.e. no public review of the website was made available before October 1) and concerns from politicians and industry insiders clearly offered many warning signs, if not, bona fide red flags. However, the extent of the problems was probably greater than many anticipated. Some of the specific issues I personally encountered were:
- Site was down or inaccessible. I received this message at 6:20am Central on October 1 and numerous times throughout the first day and week the marketplace was “open” for business.
- Site is busy. The most common response to attempted access to the Federal Marketplace, but I have received this message at 2am on a weekday, at 6am on a Saturday, at 10pm on a Sunday and many times in-between. So I am certain this issue goes beyond unusually high demand at popular times of day, revealing instead a systemic problem that the site is unable to handle even a moderate number of users.
- Page not found. Every website occasionally experiences a page not found (also known as 404 errors in HTML-speak), but this is uncommon for a brand new website. These message usually occur when old pages are decommissioned or edited and moved to a new location as part of a restructuring. A newly built website should not experience these kinds of messages on day 1 unless something has been overlooked or was left incomplete.
- Unexpected errors. I frequently received this message the first few days trying to access the exchange and still see it occasionally even 12 days later. It usually appears as a red box somewhere on the screen, saying “Unexpected Error” and the text “Error ID”, but never lists a more detailed message or ID that might be useful in tracking the problem down. With such a cryptic message, the user doesn’t know whether to quit, close the message box or try something else.
- Access denied. I received this and similar messages on a few occasions. This particular example occurred when trying to access a menu for “places to contact for local help” – very helpful indeed!
- Failure messages. The most common failure I received was regarding the creation of a Marketplace account. You can’t do anything meaningful in the Federal Marketplace until you have a valid user account and the site repeatedly failed at creating the account. It often crashed or generated an error before completing the initial application process. Other times, I made it to the point of generating the account, before seeing a message like this one.
- Non-functioning pages. This one is already well known by many people, the case of being asked to fill out security questions during the initial account creation process, but being unable to do so because the dropdown list of security questions was blank. Trying to continue without answering the questions is met with a message to fill-in the security questions. The same message is received if you type random answers into the three answer boxes. Refreshing the page numerous times did not seem to work, but risked putting you at the back of the line where you might have to wait 20 to 30 minutes for another chance to re-enter all your account information again (and hope this time the security questions are filled in). I received this message at 6:45am on October 1 and I was still receiving it two days later when I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to try and create an account.
- Unknown issues. This example appeared when trying to login after having created an account (at least I thought so at the time, but later found my account had not actually been created). This is an unusual sight that has not appeared again, but obviously shows that the information meant to be filled in on the page was not available in time to display the page.
- No help at all. On October 1, if you clicked on the link for “Live Chat”, you saw this message stating that “Live Chat isn’t available right now.” I am not sure when the link was activated. I know the Live Chat option functions now, but last time I tried it and filled in my name and email address, I did not receive a response to my “live” request in the 30 minutes I was willing to wait.
- Account verification failure. Account creation and verification is the most frustrating portion of the Federal Marketplace. Without a valid account, you can not view the health insurance options available in your area. Besides the missing security question issue, regular crashes and long waiting times, once you complete the initial phase of creating an account, you have to wait for an email from the Marketplace to verify your account. On a few attempts, the email never came. On other attempts, the email from the Marketplace came, but the website could not process the verification link. In the most egregious example, the first time I was able to go completely through the process, I completed the account creation process around 9:30pm on October 1 after trying all day long to get through. I received a link from the Marketplace at 10:06pm and immediately clicked on that link to verify my account. I tried it more than 10 times over the next hour, always receiving a system is unavailable message or some other error message. I finally gave up a little after 11pm on October 1. First thing the following morning (around 6:30am October 2), I received a message saying I waited too long to verify my account, therefore, I must repeat the entire process. Ahhhh!
- Identity verification problems. After finally creating a valid account on October 2, I spent the next few days trying to verify my identity. Despite knowing personal information intimately and answering truthfully all questions presented, the system would not recognize my identity. I received numerous error messages and system busy or system shutdown notes, forcing me to start the process over from the beginning. At one point I was told the I had tried too many times to verify my identity and therefore must now contact Experian via telephone to verify my identity. This happened on Saturday (October 5), so I called Experian’s tool-free number. The recorded message immediately informed me that the waiting period was longer than normal due to unexpected high call volume (expected on a weekday, but not on a Saturday at 12pm) – then the system hung up on me. I thought the hang up might be a mistake, so I called about an hour later, only to be hung up on again. I then tried uploading an approved document to the Marketplace, but never received any acknowledgement of the upload or contact of any kind from someone at Experian or HHS (no telling where that document actually went or who has seen it). I ultimately was able to verify my identity on October 9, after having created and verified a third Marketplace account.