WASHINGTON — A high number of visitors to the new federal health insurance exchange site Wednesday caused the system to crash or cause prospective insurance customers to endure long waits.
The Department of Health and Human Services has tried to limit the problems by changing how site visitors enter the site and reach details on how to shop for and buy insurance.
Visitors to HealthCare.gov were confronted with a combination of greetings Wednesday. They were either asked to wait, which took up to 20 minutes around midday Eastern time, and then guided to other pages, where the process moved more quickly.
By 2 p.m., however, the message was far less encouraging: "The system is down at the moment. We're working to resolve the issue as soon as possible. Please try again later."
Then, after typing in personal information and creating a user identification and password, another message: "Important: Your account couldnt be created at this time. The system is unavailable."
The hold page was meant to limit the number of people who could access the enrollment tools so the tools didn't become overwhelmed. Limiting access on the first launch isn't unusual, said Ed Mullen, an Internet consultant who helped design the HHS page. For example, when Google launched Gmail, it was an invitation-only process, he said.
Despite the myriad problems both Tuesday, the first day the exchanges were open, and on Wednesday, HHS officials said they consider the opening a success.
"Volume at HealthCare.gov continues to be high, with 4.7 million unique visits in the first 24 hours, our call center receiving more than 190,000 calls and more than 104,000 Web chats requested," HHS spokeswoman Erin Shields Britt said. "We expect to see similar volume as yesterday, and while this overwhelming interest is continuing to cause wait times, there will be continuing improvements in the coming hours and days."
State exchanges sites also reported problems. Hawaii's exchange still lacked plan prices Wednesday afternoon, and Maryland posted a note stating, "You may experience wait times during the initial steps of account creation of up to approximately two minutes." That proved to be overly optimistic.
HHS officials emphasized that people have until Dec. 15 to buy insurance if they are to start receiving coverage in January. So while the sites may be slow and plagued with bugs, there is still time to fix the problems.
Mullen, who helped with the user-experience portion of the site, said it has been odd to sit on the sidelines and watch the launch of the exchanges.
"It's sort of surreal, it's like what everyone in America is talking about right now," he said. "I helped define, in broad strokes, how it would work."
He looked at the big pieces of the program: Medicaid, new plans and financial assistance, and then helped design "what this whole big thing feels like." That involved making sure it was a smooth experience — eventually — and that people would understand what everything meant and wouldn't get lost as they made their ways through.
"I know they were expecting a lot of traffic," he said. "It is a big, complex system."
Eventually, he will use the site to buy his own insurance, he said.
HHS hopes at least 7 million will buy insurance in 2014, although it is hard to know from the initial statistics how many of the site visitors actually bought or plan to buy insurance through the exchange. Much of the interest came from people curious about the site but who already have insurance.
People who don't have insurance or who are self-insured may buy insurance from private companies through the government website. The site allows customers to compare rates, benefits and out-of-pocket costs across a variety of plans. If a person lives in a state that has its own exchange, the federal website will send that person to that site.
Anyone who makes less than 400% of the federal poverty level, or about $94,200 for a family of four, may be eligible for a tax subsidy that will be directly applied to the customer's insurance premium.
Because of the Affordable Care Act, people with pre-existing medical conditions may no longer be turned away or charged more than other consumers by insurers. Anyone who receives insurance through an employer, Medicare or Veterans Affairs will not be affected by the exchanges and will not need to apply for insurance.
People who sign up for the exchanges by Dec. 15 will begin receiving coverage Jan. 1.