Today the new healthcare exchanges officially launched, but if I had wanted to sign up for an insurance plan in Georgia, Michigan, California, or Rhode Island, I would have been out of luck at least as of 11:30 Central Time.

Nobody really expected the online marketplaces to work seamlessly. The exchanges are a huge IT undertaking, and the federal government is having to run two-thirds of them. Consumers are supposed to be able to go online, give information about their age, gender, and income, and then see their choices and sign up for a plan. But it will likely be a few weeks, at best, before that is really possible.

In order to test how the HIX websites were working, I deliberately chose two states that were running their own exchanges (California and Rhode Island), and two that had defaulted to the federal government (Michigan and Georgia).

I was able to get a fair amount of information about my options on the state-run sites, but when I tried to sign up for a California plan, I got, Come back soon. Due to the success of the Covered California Marketplace we are experiencing higher than expected users. To make sure everyone has a great experience while on the site, we need you to come back in a little bit. We're sorry for the inconvenience and we look forward to your return in a few hours.

In fairness to California, its exchange tweeted at about the time that I was on their site that they had already had 30,000 calls to their service center, 1,200 in queue, a 4 percent abandonment rate and 150 reps on the phone.

However, I was able to determine that if I were a 40-year-old woman in Fremont, Calif., making $50,000 a year, I would not qualify for a subsidy, and I would have a choice of four insurance carriers. If I narrowed it down to Blue Shield of California, the premium options ranged from $260 for a Bronze plan to $433 for a platinum plan, the latter with much smaller copays and lower out-of-pocket maximum.

Rhode Island's site was trickier to navigate. I had trouble with the drop-down for indicating date of birth, but finally got it to work by manually typing in a year, rather than using the pop-up calendar. I was able to view information on nine Blue Cross Blue Shield plans and two Neighborhood Health Plans with premiums ranging from $212 to $361 a month, but I couldn't tell whether they were Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum or just sample plans. Like the California site, Rhode Island's exchange did have extensive information on copays for doctor visits, lab work, imaging, and other services. But I wasn't able to create an account to actually sign up for a plan in Rhode Island, and when I hit the help button, the message was, This page does not have help and then a phone number to call. When I tried to find a navigator, I was supposed to put in a last name and an agency (not sure where to find those); without those I got the message No navigators who matched search criteria.

But that took me much farther than I got on the federally run sites. On the portal that takes you to all of the federally run state exchanges healthcare.gov  I chose my state, then got this message: We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we're working to make your experience here better. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience!

Fortunately for the exchanges, the uninsured have until March 31 to sign up for health insurance. In the meantime, some will give up (especially young people, who would mostly pay a very small penalty for not getting insurance), and critics will use the clumsiness of the online marketplaces to further bash ObamaCare. But with 49 million lacking health insurance in the United States, there is plenty of pent-up demand, and many will bide their time until the exchange web sites get their kinks worked out.

Follow Sheri Sellmeyer on Twitter @SheriSellmeyerHLI

Pivoting a product launch during the pandemic

View Now