Many Central Florida residents who applied for insurance on the beleaguered government exchange when it first debuted may not be covered -- even though they think they are -- and will have to apply again.
Since news got out the first of the month that the healthcare.gov website was working, area navigators have been flooded with calls and requests for help enrolling in health insurance through the exchange, said Anne Packham, a lead navigator for Primary Care Access Network, where she oversees 12 Central Florida navigators.
"We are working madly against the Dec. 23 deadline to get consumers enrolled," she said. "Phones are ringing off the hook."
But adding to their workload is the task of helping many consumers -- who either filed paper applications, applied over the phone, or who were lucky enough to get on the website -- to enroll again, she said. Many applications were lost in the process.
"The system isn't perfect yet. For many, but not all, we've had to hit the remove and restart button," said Packham, who worries about those consumers who may have a false sense that they're covered. They may not know that their application is among those that didn't get processed.
One of her navigators is working full time getting in touch with area residents who enrolled since the site opened in October, to make sure their applications went through, she said.
Although they may have to start from scratch, "at least they can now go from beginning to end in the same hour," Packham said.
The only hitch she's encountered is an occasional wait: "While the website is a lot faster and doesn't crash any more, some users do have to wait," Packham said. When too many users get on the site at one time, they get put in a virtual queue.
"When we're sitting there with a client, and we're told to come back into two hours, that's frustrating," she said.
The long-awaited government website, and the kingpin of Obama's health-care plan, launched Oct. 1, and was immediately plagued with problems. But a week after the federal government's self-imposed deadline to have Obamacare's website functioning, many of the bugs are gone.
Leah Barber-Heinz, a navigator who works with Florida CHAIN, a nonprofit group that advocates for insurance coverage for all, said, "There are still glitches, but it's 80 percent better. We're rounding the corner."
Warren Hougland, community service director for Osceola County Council on Aging, an agency that serves all ages, described the improved website as "leaps and bounds better."
Hougland, who oversees two community navigators, said, "The navigators' frustration level has lessened completely compared to when we first started. Now we're flying along."
Cebie Dorsey, of St. Cloud, is among those who successfully applied for insurance on the exchange at the council on aging. She had tried to sign up at home but was having trouble.
Late last month, the navigator took her through the online application in 30 minutes, said Dorsey, 61.
"I'm too young for Medicare and don't qualify for Medicaid," she said. "I'm caught between." The only income Dorsey, who lives with her son and his wife, gets is her widow's benefits. Dorsey will pay $63 a month for a silver-level PPO plan, and receive a $598 monthly subsidy.
Jodi Ray, project director for Florida Covering Kids and Families, at the University of South Florida, oversees a 4.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to fund 92 navigators throughout the state. "We're doing exponentially better," she said. "The website is working as it should."
She conceded, however, that "some applications we have had to do over." Consumers who applied early and haven't heard back should go online or call the website's call center to check on their status, Ray said.
A call center representative can look up the application and say whether it's pending or whether the applicant needs to start over. Community members can also call a local PCAN navigator at for help checking their application's status, said Packham, who hopes the hiccups won't deter consumers from signing up.
"I'm concerned about the people who are only hearing negative reports and so are staying away until last minute," she said.
Because of all the website problems, the Obama administration extended the deadline a week, to Dec. 23, for Americans to enroll for health insurance through the exchange to get coverage by Jan. 1 and avoid paying a penalty.
But some don't realize that even though the website is working faster, signing up is often a two-step process.
Many applicants get all the way to the point where they can see what plans are available to them and what their subsidy will be, and stop there, short of enrolling.
"There's a lot to digest," said Ray. "Most want to take the information home and think about it."
That pause is one Packham encourages. "We often tell people when they've narrowed down their choices to three or four plans, to call their hospitals and doctors to be sure they accept the plan," said Packham. "Most people have to do that research."
(c) 2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)