CHICAGO - Americans got their first chance Tuesday to shop for health insurance using the online marketplaces that are at the heart of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, but government websites designed to sell the policies struggled to handle the traffic, with many frustrated users reporting trouble setting up accounts.
State and federal agencies were working to fix the sites, which represent the biggest expansion in coverage in nearly 50 years. There should be time to make improvements. The open-enrollment period lasts for six months.
Administration officials said they are pleased with the strong consumer interest, but on a day of glitches they refused to say how many people actually succeeded in signing up for coverage. They gave inconsistent answers on whether a common problem had been cleared up or was still being corrected.
By Tuesday afternoon, at least 2.8 million people had visited the healthcare.gov website, said Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner, whose office is overseeing the rollout of the health law. The website had seven times the number of simultaneous users ever recorded on the medicare.gov site.
In Obama's home state, dozens of people who came to a Champaign, Ill., public health office to sign up for coverage found computer screens around the room flashing an error message: "System is unavailable."
Kimberly Shockley - logging in from Houston, Texas - and Mike Weaver, who lives in rural southern Illinois, ran into the same glitch as many others: They could not get past the security questions while trying to set up their personal accounts through healthcare.gov.
"I'm frustrated, very frustrated," said Shockley, a self-employed CPA. She spent more than an hour trying to get the security questions to work without success. When she clicked on a drop-down menu of suggested security questions, none appeared. She then tried to create her own questions, but that didn't work either.
Weaver, a self-employed photographer, said he also ran into problems with the drop-down menus. And when they started working, he still wasn't able to set up his account.
"The first day of something that you know is going to have a lot of bugs, it's not that frustrating," he said. "If it was the last day to sign up ... then I'd be terribly frustrated."
Shockley has health insurance, but is looking for a better plan. Weaver is uninsured.
State-operated sites also experienced trouble.
Minnesota got its site running after a delay of several hours. Rhode Island's site recovered after a temporary crash. A spokesman for the New York Department of Health blamed difficulties on the 2 million visits to the website in the first 90 minutes after its launch. Washington state's marketplace used Twitter to thank users for their patience.
Exchange officials in Colorado said their website would not be fully functional for the first month, although consumers will be able to get help applying for government subsidies during that time. Hawaii's marketplace wasn't allowing people to compare plans and prices.
Connecticut seemed to be a bright spot, although some users reported some snags. Access Health CT sent out a tweet shortly before noon Tuesday, confirming the marketplace logged 10,000 visitors in the first three hours of operation and 22 enrollments. A family of three was the first to sign up for coverage.
California, home to 15 percent of the nation's uninsured, reported delays online and on the phone because of heavy volume. The first completed health insurance application was taken at 8:04 a.m., just minutes after the exchange opened.
In Portsmouth, N.H., Deborah Lielasus tried to sign up for coverage but got only as far as creating an account before the website stopped working. She said she expected problems.
Lielasus, a 54-year-old self-employed grant writer, currently spends about $8,500 a year in premiums and more than $10,000 for out-of-pocket expenses because she has a health condition and her only option has been a state high-risk insurance pool. She said she expects those costs to decrease significantly.