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Mainers Find Good Deals in ACA Marketplace - When Web site Works
11/20/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The Web site where people can sign up for new insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act has been plagued with glitches since it first opened in October. But the Obama administration says it's getting better. Patty Wight set out to visit an insurance marketplace "navigator" to see if the Web site has, indeed, improved, and what people think of their new insurance options.

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Mainers Find Good Deals in ACA Marketplace Listen
 Duration:
3:55

Linda Letarte and Jake Grindle

Linda Letarte and navigator Jake Grindle check out Letarte's health insurance options on the federal Web site.

Jake Grindle is officially called a marketplace navigator. But in reality, you might call him a marketplace MacGyver, because he helps people sign up for insurance on the troubled federal Web site, healthcare.gov.

His first client of the day is Linda Letarte. She's a self-employed hairdresser, and this is her third attempt to sign up for insurance.

"We're going to click this to create the account over again," Grindle says. "So, you're going to see all the questions that we tried before, but hopefully this time it works right.

"I'll keep my fingers crossed," Letarte says.

"Yes, exactly," Grindle says.

Grindle says when he encounters hiccups in the process, he's learned that starting all over again can be the cure. "We're still bumping into a handful of errors here and there, and Web site glitches. But the improvement in the last week's been really dramatic, in my experience."

Letarte shuffles through personal documents as Grindle helps her enter information. It takes more than an hour for her to set up an account, see her options, and enroll. She discovers she's eligible for a subsidy, and opts for a plan with a $90 a month premium.

"You're done," Grindle says. "That's it!"

"Great," says Letarte. "This was much easier today. Went right through. That's great! I'm happy."

Letarte says currently she's paying about $600 a month for insurance, so her new plan offers much-needed financial relief.

"I need a vehicle - that's why I'm happy. I'll be able to afford buying another vehicle," Letarte says. "My transmission's going. So I'm really happy."

Though the Web site came through for Letarte, it's still a finicky place. Later in the morning, Mary DeLuca arrives with her husband to learn about insurance options. Her disabled husband has coverage through Medicare, but it doesn't cover DeLuca, who has chronic pain after gastric bypass surgery eight years ago.

She says she sometimes has to resort to emergency room care. "I'll be honest with you, I'm not even hoping - I'm praying that this is going to work out, and we're going to be able to afford some insurance," she says, "because we really need it."

Jake Grindle helps DeLuca set up an account on the marketplace Web site. But after entering some basic personal information, they hit a barrier: The Web site says it can't verify DeLuca's identity.

"Looks like one of these glitches," Grindle says. "It's not one that I've seen before."

Grindle starts back at square one and tries to set up a new account. But he hits the same wall.

"Why is it saying that: 'The attempt to verify your identity was unsuccessful?'" Grindle says. "But I've never had it say that before it even asked the identity verification questions. This was just basic contact information we put in."

Grindle tries a third time to set up a new account, and as he awaits the result, he brings his palms together, as if praying to the Web site gods. But it's to no avail. He throws up his hands.

"I'll tell you what - I might recommend us setting up a follow-up appointment rather than doing this through today," he tells the DeLucas.

Before the DeLucas leave, Grindle uses a different Web site to get an estimate on how much insurance will cost them on the marketplace: Probably around $65 a month. Mary DeLuca says she's just anxious to get health coverage.

"It's affordable, and it's something that we can handle, so I do feel a little bit better," she says. "I'll be more looking forward to coming in the next time to have more information."

Jake Grindle says the insurance marketplace is designed precisely for people like DeLuca, and the best part of his job is helping them get the coverage they need. He just wishes that would happen more often.

"If only the Web site worked correctly every time, the best part of my job would happen multiple times a day, every day, since this open enrollment period started," he says. "And it hasn't been happening. It's becoming more common. But the idea that it's something as simple as a Web site technical glitch that's keeping me from being able to get there is the part that's frustrating, I think."

Grindle says the Web site is getting better every day. And he and DeLuca will meet again next week and hope for better results.

Photo:  Patty Wight

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