Verna Cadet raced to her computer at 9 a.m. Tuesday, eager to research policies for her diabetic husband who has no insurance.
The Boca Raton office manager returned to her computer all day, but could not get into healthcare.gov.
“It’s a mess today,” she said.
A government shutdown could not kill Obamacare, but technical problems drove it to a near standstill.
On the first day nearly 48 million uninsured Americans were supposed to be able to sign up for new health coverage, those who logged on were greeted by a page telling them to wait for more information or a message that the “system is down.”
More than 1 million people tried to log into healthcare.gov from the time it launched around midnight till 7 a.m. By 5 pm. that number had hit 2.8 million, according to the Department of Health and Human Services
Obama administration officials viewed the gridlock as a tangible sign that Americans are flocking to affordable insurance.
“There were five times more users in the marketplace this morning than have ever been on medicare.gov at one time,” President Barack Obama said, during an afternoon news conference. Later, that number hit seven times as many as the Medicare site.
“That gives you a sense of how important this is to millions of Americans around the country, and that’s a good thing,” Obama said.
The federal government closed for business Tuesday after Republicans refused to vote for even a short-term budget unless Democrats agreed to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act.
The healthcare law’s opponents saw the technical problems as a chance to say “I told you so.”
“It’s obvious that the administration wasn’t prepared. We’ve been hearing for months that the exchanges aren’t going to be ready,” said Kristina Ribali, director of new media for the conservative FreedomWorks.
“It was one of the reasons so many lawmakers were saying this wasn’t ready for prime time and we’re seeing it today. Time after time, people are not being able to get through the exchange process today.”
An opinion writer for the Washington Examiner chronicled his attempts to sign on in a piece called “the glitchy error-filled misadventures of creating an account on healthcare.gov.” In it, he documented, with photos, the various error screens he encountered.
During a news conference, government officials acknowledged problems, but said some people had, indeed, been able to enroll through the online system. Reporters pressed for hard numbers, but officials said they were not ready to release data.
Americans can also sign up through a 24-hour phone line and they can get in-person help to fill out a paper application or the online version. As of Tuesday afternoon, the phone lines had fielded more than 81,000 calls, and 60,000 web chats were requested, HHS said.
Reporters pressed officials about when the website, known as the marketplace or exchange, would be ready.
“It is ready,” insisted Julie Bataille, communications director for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. She added: “This work represents more than three years of policy and operation coming together. This has never been done before, and this is a historic moment.”
No one will be denied coverage if they can’t enroll on the first day, officials reiterated. To be covered on Jan. 1, one must enroll and pay by Dec. 15. People can continue to sign up for the first year of coverage through March 31.
In Boynton Beach, more than a dozen volunteers for Enroll America, a group supporting the law, met to knock on doors and spread the word about the opening of the new marketplace.
If the Affordable Care Act is to work, millions of Americans must buy insurance. A strong minority of them need to be young and healthy to offset costs of older, sicker Americans who are expected to enthusiastically enroll.
If the sluggish website turned off people on Day 1, some may not give it a second chance.
But Cadet said she plans to go back in a few days.
She has no alternative, she said. Her 63-year-old husband’s insulin alone costs $180, and they now have to pay doctor bills out-of-pocket.
“I’m just going to wait for everyone to calm down, and then I’ll try it again. You can’t give up,” she said.
Staff Writer Charles Elmore contributed to this story.