How My State’s Health Exchange Website Problems Have Affected Me

insuranceless in seattle lol kill me

I have never gone a day in my life without health insurance, but it is looking increasingly likely that I will miss the Dec. 23 open enrollment deadline and be uninsured as of January 1. Meanwhile, the patient, friendly customer service representative on the phone with me is trying to reassure me that this is, in fact, the optimum scenario.

“We know that everyone wants to be fully covered from January 1, but legally you are only required to have health care for nine months out of the year, so it’s going to be okay if it takes that first three months to sort everything out.” Her voice is calm, comforting. She’s letting me know that I will not get into any legal trouble, simply because a website called is not working.

I’m a freelancer (specifically, a hack writer), meaning my health insurance future is tied 100% to the functionality of the ACA exchange websites. In Washington State, you don’t apply for health care through; instead, you are sent to the aforementioned, a website that has been operating with extremely limited success.

How limited? I’ve been trying to apply for health insurance since Oct. 1, and have gotten the same error code—the bizarre “ID Proofing Connection / Validation. null”—since the first day of the application. I get this code whenever I try to enter my name and address into the system; that’s how broken these forms currently are. When I get the error code, it comes with a number that I need to call, to continue my application. When you dial that number, you learn that it is not taking calls.

A quick trip to the Washington Health Plan Finder Facebook page shows that my experience is not an anomaly. Since customer service is non-existent, the page is crammed full of messages from people asking about error codes and how to actually contact a navigator or broker who can help them. Everyone is worried about the deadline. A lot of people are worried about their kids. No one from Washington Health Plan Finder is answering any of these Facebook messages.

At this point in my quest to obtain health insurance, I’ve ditched as a viable source of insurance and am instead on the phone with a CSR for Premera, the Blue Cross Blue Shield outpost in Seattle. She’s the woman who’s telling me not to worry about going to jail or getting a fine. She’s also the woman telling me that I should not try to apply for Premera insurance directly, even though the “Apply Now!” button is taunting me from my open browser.

“I’d like that plan,” I tell her. “The bronze one, at $212 a month. Can I apply for that now?”

“You really should wait and apply through the exchange,” she says. “Maybe it will start working this afternoon!”

It doesn’t.

There’s one more wrinkle in my health insurance story, and it has to do with my previous insurer. I have, by definition, always been insured; however, I’ve viewed these high-deductible, minimal-benefit insurance plans mostly as bankruptcy protection and not as a method of actually getting health care. These are the plans that President Obama wanted to flush out of the system; the ones that don’t actually protect their patients. Last year, for example, I had a 104-degree fever that wouldn’t break. The visit to the walk-in clinic, including a next-day follow-up, cost $800 out of pocket.

So I was fully expecting the letter from my insurer informing me that my current health insurance plan was not ACA-compliant and would become void as of January 1. I was mildly amused to receive a second letter from the insurer in early December, announcing that they were—surprise!—now offering ACA-compliant plans and that I would be auto-enrolled in a plan that, as it turns out, is not effective in Seattle. I’ve called that insurer, requesting that they un-enroll me from this plan I cannot actually use, and learned that they will not un-enroll me until I prove that I have other health insurance, assumedly since it is now illegal to not have health insurance, though I do not know for sure, since they will not tell me.

“But I live in Seattle now,” I keep saying. “Your plan does not cover this area. Can you un-enroll me?”


This means that if the exchange doesn’t start working in the next two or three days, or if I am unable to convince a third-party insurer to take me on despite my inability to access the exchange, I will in fact be uninsured as of January 1. I mean, technically I’ll be receiving a bill for health insurance, but it’s for a plan that does not cover Seattle and won’t do me any good if I actually need health care.

But—as the customer service representative so calmly assured me—it’s okay. I won’t get in any legal trouble. And there will be lots of other people out there just like me.


Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer and ghostwriter, and is the only member of the band Hello, The Future!


24 Comments / Post A Comment

andnowlights (#2,902)

It blows my mind that the biggest issue to these CSRs is that you won’t get in any legal trouble. I was uninsured for 4 months back in 2010 and it was terrifying (and also because I was lazy and didn’t want to deal with it). I was afraid to leave my house because I was afraid I’d get hurt and have to go to the hospital. I finally got around to getting health insurance in September and my gallbladder required removal in December. Had I not had health insurance, I would have been on the hook for $15,000 instead of $3800 (it was a high deductible plan).

honey cowl (#1,510)

This sucks a lot. I hope you get health insurance, somehow, someway!

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@honey cowl I’m trying again this afternoon. I’m going to click the “Apply Now!” button on the Premera page, CSR’s advice be hanged. Will be interesting to see if it goes through.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@HelloTheFuture Urf, what a giant drag! I’m sorry.

Maybe someone down the road will pay you to write insurance-keyword content and you can wring some of their money out for your trouble! (What a very specific pipe dream.)

LydiaBennett (#121)

@honey cowl okay I actually AM an insurance broker and you definitely SHOULD click Apply Now!!!! Like, right now! There is no reason that you have to apply through the exchange, insurance carriers still offer individual directly to customers like you. I actually cannot even think of a reason why they would want you to go through the exchange to buy their plan other than that you would be eligible for a subsidy and they might want you to be able to take advantage of that subsidy? I am licensed in PA, NJ, and DE so I don’t know much about west coast insurance but I am sure you could find a broker out there who would give you the same advice. ugh stupid exchanges are ruining everything!! But seriously, you should get coverage that you can actually use and it’s not your fault the idiots in charge of our government can’t get their s* together to get you covered correctly. She is right, you won’t have any tax implications this year (that’s the only penalty, they won’t prosecute you or send you to jail or anything!!) because you can prove you did have coverage even if it does you no good. I could go on for days and days about how frustrating it is as a broker to watch insurance companies and the government give consumers misinformation and stand by and be like, sorry the exchanges are still broken, so if you were hoping to get subsidized insurance this year, can’t help ya! I’m rambling. Get coverage directly through the carrier. If and when the exchanges are ever fixed, switch later.

Sloane (#675)

@LydiaBennett Great name.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@LydiaBennett yup, totally mashed GO on Premera’s “Apply Now!” button yesterday. Let’s hope they get back to me. :)

aetataureate (#1,310)

@HelloTheFuture Good luck!!!

Meaghano (#529)

I got stuck in this loophole, too, on NY’s site. For me it was because I checked a box saying I wanted to see if I qualified for financial assistance (“sure!”) — which unbeknownst to me was Medicaid — and it was throwing me into some authorization loop. Anyway, on NY’s site there is a section on authorizing a Broker/Navigator/Assistant. I did that and it put me in touch with a “navigator” whose office was two blocks from me. I went to see this woman — I’ll write about it at some point — and it turned out she was actually an insurance broker, but she is fully-trained in ACA stuff and totally helped me out, as in logged into my account as me and got me all set up. I ended up not using her company’s insurance bc it was too expensive, which is a little awkward, but still well worth the visit. There is something about sitting down with someone in person with this stuff which is so helpful. Not that it should have to come to this! But I know the feeling of wanting to be DONE with this process and almost losing your mind.

siege91 (#1,738)

Bummer. My girlfriend just got insurance through the Washington site and it worked fine, which I know is not comforting or helpful in your case, but just to say that the exchange does work sometimes (also we qualify for hella subsidies, which is pretty nice).

My understanding is that the ID verification for determining eligibility for subsidies under the ACA was contracted out to Experian. Anyone who has ever tried to deal with an error on their credit report will be familiar with the level of customer service and responsiveness they offer. Good luck. Just keep thinking of those sweet sweet subsidies.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@siege91 YAY! I know that there are some people who made it through, which is both awesome and a bit surprising. As Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics once wrote: websites are supposed to be deterministic, right?

Also GAAAH I hope that this doesn’t mean there’s also something crazy going on with my credit report.

aardvark (#3,451)

@HelloTheFuture There’s a list of enrollment events here: I don’t know if it would be helpful to attend one of those? There are a bunch around the Seattle area over the next couple days. (Here’s another list, organized by region rather than date:

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@aardvark I gotta say this is where I feel a little bit weird… like, in Seattle, those enrollment events are taking place at food banks, and part of me is all “I don’t need that particular kind of help, and my presence would be getting in the way of people who do need it.” What do you think? Am I just making it weird?

BananaPeel (#1,555)

@HelloTheFuture You need the assistance of the enrollment professionals, so you totally have a valid reason to go. If you get there and they give you grief, you can leave. Besides, if you don’t go and later this becomes a THING, you might regret it. Good luck!!

garysixpack (#4,263)

I’m in CA, and I have a slightly different problem. My current insurance will be canceled at the end of the year, so I am shopping for a new policy. I don’t have to use the exchange, since I don’t qualify for subsidies anyway, so the whole process has been quite smooth. In fact, since health insurance is no longer medically underwritten, the application was orders of magnitude simpler than before.

However, I can’t find a policy that will let us keep our doctors. One plan will let me keep my GP, another my wife’s OB/GYN, yet another our pediatrician. I’m inching towards the 4th choice (Kaiser), since it’s the fairest policy for us. None of us will be able to keep our doctors with Kaiser.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

Although I don’t have a lot of sympathy for insurance companies, it might not be accurate to blame the insurance company for not cancelling your insurance. This decision may be driven by regulations or “suggestions” coming out of Washington.

Based on what I’ve read, the current situation is a mess for insurance companies. They largely met their deadlines for cancelling policies (as directed by Washington) and are now being told to reinstate those policies for a year (which will mess up their pricing plans and IT systems). I understand that they’re being asked to provide insurance for people who haven’t actually paid for it.

From an IT perspective (which is the area I work in), it appears that Obamacare is going to continue to be a mess for quite awhile. I truly hope that not too many people are negatively affected by it, but I’m pessimistic.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@WayDownSouth It’s such a mess that I literally can’t comprehend how it’s such a mess, you know? Starting with how the government didn’t buy enough server space?? The whole thing is ludicrous! I also can’t decide, on a personal level, how much to blame Obama himself for whatever his role in it is — because, to me, it’s maybe worse to take a good idea and ruin it than never to try it at all.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@aetataureate from what’s I’ve read about it, the IT aspects of the roll-out are well and truly rooted. Even though I’m not involved with the program in any way, I can provide my far-distant observations.

For the entire program to work successfully, all parts have to integrate properly.

1. The web front end has to accurately collect people’s data (obviously being available for customers to enter the data in the first place, which an issue that they’ll hopefully fix soon).

2. Once the data is collected, the data has to be successfully sent to the various systems which will process the data (e.g., all the different vendors have to agree on what data will be sent and received, the processes for managing this data once it arrives have to be worked out). This can be incredibly detailed and complicated.

Most of the attention to date has focussed on the website, because it’s such an appalling failure. If one of my projects had rolled out so badly, I’d be looking for another job within a week and someone else would be managing it in my place. However, this is relatively simple. You just need to collect the data and store it. This is the easy part. Fortunately, you can often just throw hardware at website issues (e.g., bigger servers, more bandwidth).

However, the real complications are in the interaction between the front end that collects the data and the back end systems which process the data. From what I understand from the Congressional testimony, quite a bit of this work literally hasn’t started. So customers can enter their data (eventually), but there’s nowhere for the data to go. It’s just going to sit there (presumably while these customers’ insurance policies lapse or don’t start in the first place).

I don’t blame Obama entirely for the bad integration project — he’s just the person at the top and isn’t hands-on. Agreeing to roll out this disaster is the fault of the various project managers, architects, developers and business managers. However, I do blame Obama for not putting in a proper management structure in the first place. Based on what I’ve read, he or his people didn’t allow the IT people to start early enough or work together enough. Instead, he was so worried by the political implications of the complexity and risk that the real work only started after the 2012 election. That’s way, way too late.

As well, I am frankly appalled about his lack of oversight. How could he be surprised at how awful it is? Either he’s surrounded himself with yes-people who are absolutely terrified of bringing him any bad news or he doesn’t know enough about managing people to ask any questions. Instead, he just crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.

Managing IT integration projects is what I do to earn my humble paycheque. And based on what I’ve read, I’m very, very concerned about the people who are reliant on Obamacare for their insurance. I’ve been involved in some bad projects, but nothing comes even close to how bad this roll-out is. I am frankly quite worried about the impacts of this disaster on the American public.

gl (#5,458)

My issue with the NY website was 100% my fault. Instead of putting my birthdate as 1/9/86 (when I was actually born) I put 1/9/13 when I turned 27. And because it couldn’t match my birth year and my ssn I was not qualified. And your birthday and ssn are the only two parts of your profile you cannot edit.

But never fear! I called and all I had to do was make a different profile. I could use my same e-mail address and everything, just a different login name. And then I could remake my profile and all was good. When I asked how they squared that the woman I talked to on the phone went “we figure it out on our end” Uh, well fine?

God though, I really wasn’t born last year, promise!

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@gl you may want to request written confirmation that your earlier profile is deleted. Otherwise your SSN can be matched against two profiles, which may create problems later.

shannowhamo (#845)

I live in Texas which has had the most people register with (but of course, it is the biggest state to not have its own exchange) but I guess there are benefits to the state being completely uninterested in making it succeed as I had no issues canceling my current insurance before I got my new insurance through!

Markovaa (#1,509)

I feel awkward reporting that I had no problems registering on the NY exchange. In fact, I kept waiting for something to go wrong but nothing did.

Could you call a Navigator since the website itself is not working?

Kimberly Alison (#4,465)

I keep having issues “verifying identity” and I’ve called the customer service line SO MANY TIMES. They keep telling me to give them the reference number that should appear on my screen, but of course never has. I’m freaking out because I ended up having a medical issue last month that luckily student health could help with, but they told me that I definitely need to see a real doctor and SOON. Ughh

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)


So is slightly less broken than before, but still broken! However, it is letting people “submit incomplete applications,” that is, “submit applications that we cannot complete because the website keeps erroring us out” so we are on register as “applying” before the Dec 23 deadline.

I am assuming this means that whenever we do get health insurance, they’ll backdate us to Jan 1, but I can’t say for sure. All I know is that I am now on record with the ACA as having applied for health insurance before the Dec 23 deadline, and the onus is now on to contact me via phone and complete the application.

I also have an outstanding insurance application with Premera, because it’s always good to have eggs in more than one basket.




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