NY health insurance portal presents challenges, but users still rejoice at its existence

While New Yorkers have beefs aplenty about the user friendliness of New York state’s web portal for health insurance — nystateofhealth.ny.gov — most are grateful to have it.

And it’s clearly working for some of them: The site has enrolled 48,162 people since it launched Oct. 1. Another 197,011 people have completed applications and been deemed eligible for a low cost plan, but have yet to select one, according to recent figures released by the New York State Department of Health.

Tom Walker, 55, a web designer from Hell’s Kitchen, has a million quibbles with the portal. When the web-savvy west sider went shopping for a new insurance plan, he found the drop down menus confusing and counterintuitive.

The site forces a user "to commit to choices before you could explore them," unlike say, Expedia, which allows users to compare and calculate the pros and cons of different options and scenarios before providing personal data, he noted.

Additionally, one plan purportedly covered his primary care physician, but when he called the insurer, it turned out only the physician’s specialist services were covered.

But after a couple hours of exploring the site, Walker bought a platinum plan from Emblem for $550 a month that was $750 less than he pays in Oxford premiums now. "I saved 55% in my premiums and my deductible is zero," which is also an improvement over what he’s had, he said.

Walker — who recently received a lifesaving $87,000 stent for which he was billed only $750,thanks to being insured — forgives the site its foibles, knowing firsthand the challenges and intricacies of its complicated infrastructure. "The idea that anything will be perfect from day one is a fallacy," said Walker, explaining all websites are works in progress. Successfully navigating the virtual marketplace requires not so much intelligence, "but tenacity," he said.

Saeed Abda, 40, was unable to sign up his uninsured sister because the site couldn’t verify her identity. But, he, too, was more grateful than annoyed. "The quality of the website shouldn’t be the measure of how good or bad the idea is: It’s a really good idea," said Abda, a security guard who lives in Kingsbridge, the Bronx. His sister was ultimately referred to a physical site in the Bronx staffed by navigators to help her, Abda said.

"I’m still trying to get health care," sighed Paul Joseph, 29, a telecom installer from Bed Stuy. He immediately went on the site when it debuted, but "it gave me too many problems," and he gave up. He plans to revisit it before the end of the year, hoping that the problems have resolved.

The site crashed the first day because so many people tried to access it simultaneously, "but we quadrupled that capacity and did software modifications so the processing speeds are now as fast as on any site," said Bill Schwarz, spokesman for the New York State Department of Health.

Newcomers who do not want to plug in personal info before seeing what they might be able to get can click on the home page’s "about" box to shop anonymously as one does on Expedia, Schwarz added. And the glitch Abda encountered was caused by outages on the federal site, which verifies information for the N.Y. state website, Schwarz explained. "That hampers our ability to process applications, but when (the federal site) comes back up," the commands will be executed instantaneously, he promised. Provider networks have also been updated, and yes, the site will continue to be modified for maximum user friendliness, Schwarz said. "Any site like this is very dynamic," he said.

Keith Perkins, 21, a tech-savvy grocery clerk from Woodlawn, the Bronx, tried getting health insurance for his mom but hit a roadblock when the prompts demanded information about her income and he didn’t have the necessary papers. "I’m going to go back and finish it" soon, he said.

Schwarz, who said it has been "very personally rewarding" to be a part of the health care rollout in New York state, hopes Perkins returns. The site has had more than a million unique visitors since Oct. 1, and after the first week of snafus, "has been running extremely well. We’ve had little no issues with access," Schwarz said.