More than 40,000 people visited Illinois' new health insurance marketplace by midday on Tuesday, the first opportunity to comparison shop for coverage through a system that's a key piece of President Barack Obama's signature health care law. But people hoping to enroll weren't getting much further, as the federally run website experienced glitches and delays.
At a health center on Chicago's west side, Deborah Mitchell, 57, waited about an hour before giving up and making an appointment for next week. Mitchell and her 62-year-old husband have insurance but wanted to see if she could get a better rate. She also wanted to try on the first day so she can report back to the congregation at the church where her husband is a pastor.
Mitchell said the delay wasn't surprising, and she took it in stride.
"It's the first day," she said. "I'm looking for the whole week to be kind of jammed."
Gov. Pat Quinn called it a "historic" day that will change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Illinois residents by helping them get health insurance. An estimated 1.8 million people in Illinois don't have health insurance; officials hope at least 300,000 of them will enroll through the marketplace by March 31.
Quinn said the problems with the website were understandable and that Illinois would keep working toward its mission, just as Apple keeps working to fix new products that experience problems.
"We understand with any new program there will be glitches and bumps along the way," the Chicago Democrat said at a news conference in Chicago. "That's what happens with any endeavor."
Illinois residents wanting to shop for coverage start by visiting a new website, Get Covered Illinois, where they can determine if they're eligible for Medicaid or to buy insurance on the marketplace. Consumers who don't qualify for Medicaid based on income are directed to the marketplace. That site is run by the federal government because Illinois lawmakers did not vote to have the state create its own system.
Illinois also opened a call center where staff can field questions, and county health departments, health centers and community organizations have trained workers to help people with the process. Tuesday also marked the launch of a $33 million advertising campaign to inform residents about Get Covered Illinois.
Still, officials were expecting a slow rollout. Though the law requires almost everyone to have health insurance, consumers have until the end of March to do so and avoid penalties for 2014. People who want their coverage to begin Jan. 1 must enroll by Dec. 15.
Percy Giles, director of West Side Health Authority in Chicago, said the agency intentionally didn't schedule many appointments for Tuesday because it wanted to "get the kinks out." He said the goal was just to get someone to sign up "so we know we can do it."
Patrick Lamanske and his wife, 59-year-old Ping Lamanske, came to the Champaign Urbana Public Health District office in Champaign Tuesday morning to sign up for coverage for her. But after almost two hours of sitting in front of a laptop with a staff member, they hadn't managed to get through the federal government website.
Lamanske, who is 66 and retired, says he has coverage through Medicare. But his wife does not.
"It'll help me sleep better, knowing my wife's got some kind of coverage," the Champaign resident said as he waited at one of the half-dozen laptops set up in the office. She's healthy, he said, but "you never know — you break a leg, you sprain an ankle."
Lamanske was patient, though, joking with staff about the wait.
By mid-morning about 20 people had come to the office to try to enroll, but none had been able to, said Awais Vaid, who is director of planning at the health district.
Tuesday's launch comes on the same day as a threatened shutdown of the federal government, led by congressional Republicans who want to block the health care law, though a shutdown would have no immediate effect on the marketplaces.