By Meghan McCarthy

As someone who closely followed the unfortunate rollout of the Obamacare exchanges this fall, I read my fair share of stories about the woes of consumers in the new marketplaces. Now, I can commiserate.

My husband and I were on my former employer’s health insurance plan through January 31. Because he is a congressional staffer in a personal office, we were headed to DC’s exchange—DC Health Link—to get coverage beginning in February. Since we were enrolling towards the end of the month, I figured the problems that many congressional staffers experienced at the end of 2013 would mostly be resolved.

I was wrong. We encountered dozens of issues, the most problematic being that we did not actually receive any information about our coverage from our health insurance company until February 14. (Whether that was the fault of the health exchange, the insurance company, the congressional benefits office, or a mix of some or all is unclear.) This, despite the fact the DC Health Link site said on January 22: “Congratulations: You’ve successfully enrolled in a healthcare plan.”

The experience was shockingly bad, even for someone like me, who has, in past jobs, accidentally shut down my company’s website because I tried to log in so many times with a forgotten password. When I can’t get something to work online, I try—a lot—until I succeed. But after several failed attempts, I slowly realized that I was not dealing with a website that was, as the insurance exchanges were so often compared to, an online market place like Expedia or Kayak.

Instead, I was working on a system that could not remember any application I had started (and was often forced to stop when the site crashed), that required personal information be entered exactly as listed on a pay check or it would not be recognized, and that did not equip call center employees with any ability to override the website – they seemed to literally just enter your information for you on the same site that had frozen and crashed moments before.

Before I delve into the details, a note on the staff at the DC Health Link. They were kind and tried to be as helpful as possible. And when my frustration reached levels that resulted in extensive Twitter complaining, leaders at the exchange reached out directly to try to help solve my health insurance woes. (The perks of being a health reporter?) But that was the only positive of the experience.

My adventure with DC Health Link started on January 5th, when I started the application process only to have the website crash as I started to browse plans. I shrugged and figured that, no surprise, turns out those stories about the exchange websites failing were true.

I didn’t give this failure much thought until the last week of January, when my desire to actually have health insurance in the month of February beat out my natural tendency to procrastinate. I went back over to DC Health Link, determined to make it through.

My collection of missing applications. And though I can be pretty quick on a computer, I doubt I was able to enter two applications successfully a mere 8 seconds apart.


So after a few attempts that kept crashing, I decided to call the help line. I naively thought they could override whatever was happening with my application on the website and get me back to the enrollment phase. Once again, I was wrong.

After an hour on the phone, most of which was hold time, a call center employee had entered the several pages of information (names, dates of birth, addresses, etc.) into an application on her computer twice over, both without success. My husband was not recognized as a congressional employee, so we could not enroll in anything. She suggested that it might be something to do with the fact that our street address has the word “North” in it, which could confused the system if it wasn’t entered to exactly match the records from his employer. (So was it N? Or North? Or NORTH? So many options!) My husband then consulted the congressional benefits office, which advised him to enter everything in all capital letters.

One hour later, I thought I could claim victory: All capital letters, my husband’s name shortened to a nickname that is not his legal name but is the name used on his paycheck, and a correction to social security numbers (I’ve got mine down, but messed up my husband’s a few times in the dozens of applications I entered), I made it through to the enrollment period.

Instead of being able to browse plans, though, I knew this time that I had to make a selection right away. If I didn’t successfully enroll, I would likely be back on the phone, listening to classical waltzes while waiting for someone to reenter my application for me. Again.

Comparing plans on the site was not easy. I was able to sort plans by deductible (almost all had a deductible of $1,000 or more), but most of the details I was looking for—like how much a plan would pick up in coinsurance if I went out of network, or how different prescription drugs were covered and at what price—required opening a PDF from the individual insurance companies on each plan. With roughly 20 PDFs opened and several phone calls to discuss pros and cons with my husband, I selected our plan and clicked enroll. Three hours after beginning my second attempt, I seemed to have success. DC Health Link congratulated me on my enrollment and I called it a day, glad to know a health insurance card would be making its way to my door soon.


The congratulations from DC Health Link on our new insurance plan. Which would arrive roughly one month later.


Once again, that assumption was not entirely correct. When we hadn’t gotten any information on our new health insurance plans by February 3, I decided to call our new insurance company and see what was up. They said they had no record of our enrollment.

At this point, I was unsurprised. But I was also starting to get nervous about not having any real health insurance. I called DC Health Link again and explained that I had successfully enrolled according to the exchange website on January 22, but my new insurance company did not have a record of the enrollment. The call center employee said they could not confirm that we enrolled in anything, it was “just one of those website glitches.” She told us to go back to the congressional benefits office and see if they could confirm our enrollment.

My husband went the next morning, and was given a letter that did confirm our enrollment. Why we had not received that letter at an earlier point was unclear. While the letter confirmed that we had enrolled in something, it did not explain why our insurance company didn’t know who we were three days into the month our coverage was supposed to start.

At this point I went back to Twitter, this time mentioning @DCHealthLink by name. Within a few minutes, they responded to me directly, which led to an email asking about my difficulties with the exchange. After explaining my saga, I got an answer from an exchange official: “The process for January Congressional enrollments was always that they weren’t being physically processed until after Jan 31 which is why you haven’t received information from the carrier yet.  I’m sorry if that information was not translated to you well.”

The fact that our enrollment information appeared to be transmitted to the insurance company via paper would seem to defeat the purpose of the exchange in the first place. But on top of that frustration, it was not that the information was not translated well. It was that no one had ever told us that our application wouldn’t be processed until sometime in early February.


We finally got our health insurance cards on February 18. Thankfully, neither of us needed medical care in the past three weeks when we would’ve had to, in the best case scenario, front money for treatment and then hopefully get reimbursed by our insurer once they had a record of our enrollment. Things eventually worked out, but you can be sure I am not looking forward to reliving this process come open enrollment at the end of this year.