Christine Stuart photo
Kevin Counihan, Access Health CT CEO (Christine Stuart photo)

As of 4 p.m., Tuesday 83 people had enrolled in one of the plans offered on Connecticut’s insurance exchange. The number was far more than Access Health CT CEO Kevin Counihan had anticipated.

The call center fielded more than 1,930 calls during the day, with the average call time trending at approximately nine minutes. It also received more than 123,000 visits to its web site from about 28,000 unique visitors. The high traffic volume caused the website to crash or operate slowly at certain points in the day.

At an afternoon press conference in its Hartford call center, Counihan said they were doing what they could to make sure the glitches were resolved as quickly as possible, but he warned that the site may not work on older browsers or outdated technology.

“We’ve employed very sophisticated technology,” Counihan said.

He said a reporter from a very well-known newspaper was trying to use Netscape in order to access the site. He said that may have worked in the early 1990s, but they need more current browsers to use the online enrollment process.

Counihan admitted that there was no study done to see what type of technology Connecticut residents were using before it decided on its web site platform. However, he said those with old technology have several options, including calling the center at 855-805-4325.

He said the call center is staffed with workers ready to handle calls that, on average, will last 45-minutes. That’s the average time necessary to complete the application. But there was a University of Connecticut law student who told them via Twitter that they finished the application in 20 minutes and “likened it to Turbo Tax.”

“So maybe there’s a generational thing,” Counihan joked.

Screengrab of Access Health CT web portal

In anticipation of these first-day glitches, Counihan’s team released a statement Monday evening warning that there will be issues on opening day.

For the past few months, Counihan has been trying to lower expectations for the exchange and urging patience at the same time his team has been trying to spread the word about exactly what it is that the exchange does and doesn’t do.

Last week, they got some unexpected bad news when the White House released a report comparing the health insurance premiums offered in all the states. Before the federal subsidies were applied, only Wyoming, Alaska, and Mississippi had higher monthly premiums than those offered here in Connecticut.

Weren’t the exchanges supposed to increase competition in the market and lower the cost of health insurance?

Counihan said the numbers in the report are unaudited. He said Connecticut is an expensive state and has the fourth highest medical costs in the country. In addition, other states of similar size may have lower prices because their provider networks “were often much tighter, smaller, and more restrictive” than in Connecticut, he said.

Christine Stuart photo
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Communications Director Jason Madrak cut the ribbons (Christine Stuart photo)

Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who co-chairs the Access Health CT Board of Directors, said they will look to bring down the cost next year. Counihan mentioned that an insurance company from outside Connecticut was interested in participating next year and until then, Wyman believes the federal subsidies will come in handy and help offset the costs.

“With the subsidies I think more people can afford it and these are the working people,” she said.

Individuals and families will receive subsidies from the federal government to off-set the cost of buying insurance. An individual with income anywhere between $15,857 to $45,960 can qualify for a federal insurance subsidy, and a family of four with income from $32,500 to $94,200 also will qualify for subsidies based on income and household size. There were 84 people who signed up Tuesday who made below 138 percent of the federal poverty level and qualified for Medicaid.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who attended Tuesday’s ribbon cutting at the Hartford call center, sought to offer some perspective on today’s accomplishment.

At the beginning of this process, when Connecticut was setting up its exchange, Malloy said not everyone was “necessarily pulling in the same direction.”

“Ultimately I believe the federal solution that is now being marketed today, is the right solution,” Malloy said Tuesday. “. . . We are in far better shape than those states and governors who have turned their backs on this historic program and these historic offerings. So let me be very clear, you get a lot proud moments when you are governor — this is one of the proudest.”

And while he may embrace the federal exchange, Malloy has changed his view of a public option over the past three years.

On the campaign trail in 2009, Malloy said he supported a public option, and he even stood side-by-side with religious leaders in calling for a public option just weeks before taking office. However, campaigning is different than governing. Faced with a $3.6 billion budget deficit, Malloy backed off his support for a public option.

In February 2011,  Ben Barnes, the governor’s budget secretary, said that the administration supports moving forward with federal healthcare reform, but wasn’t necessarily ready to embrace a state-run public option and it also wasn’t ready to hand over rate-setting power to a “quasi-public agency” as recommended by the SustiNet Board of Directors.

But even without a public option there are many Connecticut residents who are happy to be able to purchase health insurance.

Babz Rawls Ivy, managing editor of the Inner City News, said she shopped on the exchange Tuesday and narrowed down her choices to about three or four options.

Ivy, who lost her insurance during her divorce, said she was not able to afford COBRA and “went to bed with a prayer on my lips asking God to keep me healthy and in no need of medical attention.”

She got by with some help from her primary care physician who lowered his costs in order to continue her care and figured out a way to lower the cost of her medication. But it wasn’t a permanent solution.

“Today was amazing,” Ivy said. “I felt so empowered and so in control of my health.”