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Navigators Tread Water As Website Problems Continue

Updated: Dec. 19, 2013

Navigators in states relying on the flawed federal exchange are focusing on bolstering excitement and education about the law as they wait for fixes to the website.

Photo by Roland Urbanek via Flickr

“It’s slowed us down,” says Patsy Dowling, executive director of Mountain Projects Inc., a 130-employee nonprofit in Western North Carolina, which won a $360,000 grant to help guide shoppers through the process. “We’re focusing on a lot of education and outreach right now — here’s the act, and here’s how you can contact us and what you should bring.”

They’ve also been having people who come in to enroll fill out paper applications, which people can then mail to the federal government to determine the person’s eligibility for a subsidy to help purchase coverage. But the paper applications, Dowling says, are “pretty cumbersome and long. It takes much longer [than an online application], but that’s the only option, and people want to feel like they’re enrolling.”

Since the federal exchange opened on Oct. 1, few Americans have been able to enroll in coverage online. That’s because the website,, has been mired in technical glitches preventing people from determining their eligibility or selecting a plan. The administration has promised a “tech surge” to fix those problems, but it is not clear when the website will be functioning properly.

This presents a serious problem for navigators in the 34 states relying on the federal website, who collectively received $67 million in funding to help with in-person enrollment. The groups had already been under great pressure to be ready to sign people up, with limited funding, just six weeks to hire and train workers and burdensome document requests by House Republicans.

Nonetheless, many remain optimistic. David Aguirre, who runs the navigator program at the Greater Phoenix Urban League, Inc. in Arizona, which received a $523,000 grant, says has improved over the past few weeks, and the group has been able to get “quite a few applications through the system.”

So far, they’ve avoided enrolling people through paper applications and are instead focusing on setting up educational opportunities at local events, such as an AIDS walk, and a Susan G. Komen R(r)ace for the C(c)ure, where they pass out fliers and explain how the health law will work.

Lauren Banks, who is in charge of the program at AIDS Alabama, Inc., which received a $501,000 grant, says the website problems did not come as a shock. “We anticipated some types of hiccups, so we prepared for a soft launch and knew this month might be kind of hectic,” she says.  Their official launch, however, is the first week in November, and the website is unlikely to be fully functional by then.

The group has so far focused on talking to groups of interested residents at clinics, doctors’ offices, businesses and community organizations. “Our phone has been ringing off the hook for us to give presentations. It’s been really good,” says Banks.

She says they’ve been able to help a few people enroll online, but mostly they’ve been processing paper applications. So far, they have not yet heard from anyone who received a response from the federal government based on a paper application.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly reported that Mountain Projects navigators mail paper applications for people who seek their assistance. They do not.  It is against the rules governing navigators for them to mail paper applications on behalf of people seeking insurance. Kaiser Health News regrets the error.