By Joseph Spector and Jon Campbell
ALBANY Error messages on the Internet and an automated response on a hotline slowed New York residents seeking to shop for the health insurance on the first day of the state's exchange program.
People on social media noted a variety of error messages and slow downloads of information on the state's health-exchange website, which launched Tuesday morning.
On its telephone hotline, a recorded message warned callers about long delays for information.
"We are currently receiving a high volume of calls, leading to long wait times. If you prefer not to wait, we encourage you to call back later," the message said.
State officials said they received 2 million hits on the website in the first two hours it was opened. They indicated at a news conference in Albany on Tuesday that the glitches were been smoothed out.
"With that volume of hits on the website, we experienced some delays in getting people responses," said Donna Frescatore, executive director of the health exchange. "Our call times and our website, performance is improving as we go through the morning here."
New York expects to enroll as many as 1.1 million uninsured people over the next three years. Enrollment runs from Oct. 1 through March 31. The program starts Jan. 1.
Here's how to get on the exchange: http://www.HealthBenefitExchange.ny.gov
The exchanges are open to individuals or small business owners with 50 or fewer employees.
The enrollment period runs through March 31. The exchanges start Jan. 1.
New York has more than 2.7 million uninsured and under-insured. The state expects 1.1 million New Yorkers to obtain health insurance through the exchange: 615,000 individuals and 450,000 small business members.
If an uninsured person doesn't get health insurance, they would likely be fined as a tax penalty on their 2015 income taxes. It's about a $95-per-adult penalty for the first year, or 1 percent of family income. And it increases over time, to as much as $695 a year.
Large employers have until 2015 to offer health insurance to its workers without being fined.
New York has touted the exchanges as a way to offer cheaper health insurance than going through private insurers. Costs could be as much as 54 percent cheaper than previously available.
On average in New York, the plans range from $131 a month for individuals for basic catastrophic coverage to $360 a month for platinum coverage, the most comprehensive plan available.
If a company has fewer than 50 workers, it won't have to offer health insurance, but can do so through the exchanges.
And if a worker has insurance through their employer, they could still shop on the exchange, but they are unlikely to get lower rates.
Business groups have warned that the health exchange would lead to higher costs for small companies. It could also lead to layoffs or fewer hours for workers, they said.
"We've done our best to prepare our members but the Obama administration has done a generally bad job at informing small businesses of their regulatory obligations under the law," said Mike Durant, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, earlier this month.
State health officials said small businesses would benefit from the program and perhaps pay less to insure its workers.
"We think for small businesses, there's no requirement here on them at all," Danielle Holahan, deputy executive director for the New York State of Health, said in a recent interview.
"What we are doing is trying to make it easier for them to offer coverage and make it affordable for them to do so as an attractive option to attract and retain workers," she continued.
The Manhattan Institute, a business-backed group in New York City, estimates New Yorkers buying health insurance on the open market will pay 29 percent less in January than they had been paying.
The drop is in large part due to New York already having among the highest health-insurance costs in the nation and a vast web of health-care plans. More than a dozen private insurers have signed on to provide coverage under the exchanges.
Individuals with incomes below 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($45,960 for individuals and $94,200 for a family of four) could be eligible for assistance under the exchanges, including receiving income-tax credits.
Here's details to get more information:
The phone number for the "NY State of Health" program is (855) 355-5777. The line will be open 8 a.m to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Starting Oct. 1, the hours will expand to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
To estimate your tax credit and premium estimator, visit: www.nystateofhealth.ny.gov/PremiumEstimator
NY State of Health Plan Map, visit: www.nystateofhealth.ny.gov/PlansMap
Here's some of the key questions and answers about the health exchanges:
What is the health exchange, called the New York State of Health?
It's a health-plan marketplace mandated by the federal government under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Registration will be available starting Oct. 1 for individuals, families and small businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
Who could benefit?
More than 1 million people in New York who are without health insurance.
Who is eligible?
Anyone. But if you are an individual and earn less than $45,960, you may be eligible for tax credits. The income eligibility is less than $94,200 for a family of four. It also includes sole proprietors.
What if you're on Medicare?
You could be eligible, but the cost probably won't be cheaper and could lead to duplicated coverage.
When does coverage begin?
As early as Jan. 1, and small businesses that decide to offer insurance through the exchange could have a variable start date - essentially the first day of any month.
How are the exchanges funded?
Right now by the federal government, through $370 million in grants. But by 2015, New York has to have a self-sustaining program. It has 120 people working on the exchanges.
What if I have a preexisting health condition?
The amount you pay for a health plan will not be affected by your health status, the state Health Department said. So you can't be charged more because of a health problem.
What if you don't get health insurance?
You'll likely be fined as a tax penalty on your income taxes in 2015. It's about $95 per adult penalty for the first year, or 1 percent of family income. And it increases over time, to as much as $695 a year. The open enrollment period runs from Oct. 1 through March 31.
What if I already get health insurance through my employer?
If you meet the income eligibility requirements, you should shop through the exchanges to see if it's a better deal than what your employer provides. But it's likely your employer, particularly a large company, offers rates lower than what is available through the exchanges.
So what's covered?
Every health plan through the exchanges - and there are about 17 - requires coverage for 10 health services. They include care at a doctor's office, emergency services, hospital care, pregnancy and baby care, prescription drugs and lab services, mental health, rehabilitation and wellness services.
Why are there metal tiers?
Because they differ in costs to the consumer. The platinum plan provides the highest level of coverage and is the most expensive -- followed by gold, silver and bronze.
How much will the health insurance cost?
It'll vary by metal tier, and people may be eligible for upfront tax credit to diffuse some of the cost. If you choose the mid-range silver plan, here's what you might pay, according to the health department:
--An individual with annual income of $17,000 would pay $55 per month.
--An individual with annual income of $40,000 would pay $252 per month.
--A family of 4 with annual income of $35,000 would pay $114 per month.
--A family of 4 with annual income of $82,000 would pay $739 per month.
Will other employers be eligible?
For the first two years, only businesses with 50 or fewer employees are eligible. In 2016, it will open to businesses with 100 or fewer employees.