Choral Director May Be First Healthcare.gov Enrollee In Philadelphia Area

Holly Phares was a mouse click away from becoming the first Philadelphia-area consumer to successfully enroll in coverage on healthcare.gov, and she was psyched.

“I want to ‘confirm,’ ” she proclaimed to the three people gathered at the Resources for Human Development (RHD) office in Roxborough, Pa. Everyone stared at the screen bearing the words, “Confirm and Save Your Health Care Plan” as Phares positioned the cursor and clicked.

Since the health-insurance marketplace opened Oct. 1, RHD has not enrolled one client using the federal Healthcare.gov website.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. In three weeks, the group, recipient of the state’s largest federal grant to train navigators, has fielded 450 calls and helped 40 to 50 people in southeastern Pennsylvania buy plans using old-school paper applications.

But buying coverage via the now famously flawed website has been mission impossible.

Phares was there to end that shutout streak.

Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among the 36 states that chose to use the Healthcare.gov website, rather than develop their own. And from the start, Phares thought she had an unusual rapport with it. Not only did she get on relatively quickly, but she got all the way through the process without being kicked out or having her computer freeze.

Maybe it was divine intervention, since she is choral director for the Tabernacle United Church in West Philadelphia.

But Phares thinks that her secret is more Ethernet than ethereal; she used her smartphone.

“We couldn’t get through to the website very well on a laptop,” said Phares, 50, who is also a freelance vocal teacher. “We did it all on my smartphone.”

Her quest began after church last Sunday. She and Laura Line, a fellow congregant and RHD’s corporate assistant director for Health Care and a certified navigator, spent 90 minutes trying to access the website with a laptop.

Later that day, Phares tried again, this time using her smartphone. Her experience was oddly Amazon-like.

“I got to the point where I called Laura and told her that I got through,” Phares said. “She was ready to cry she was so happy.”

Phares filled out the basic enrollment information and set up her account. She created a checklist of her needs in the “Health Plan Notes” section. To view sample plans, she entered her name, age, zip code, county, and yearly income. Within seconds, the screen filled with a list of plans matching her requirements. She was even able to see that she was eligible for a subsidy.

“It was very user-friendly,” Phares said. “You basically keep clicking on the hyperlinks.”

Phares also called the website’s 800 number three times and found customer service to be polite and patient. She placed the last call around 1 a.m. Tuesday. Ten hours later, she was sitting at the desk, her trusty smartphone connected to a monitor, ready to commit.

“I’m going with Independence Blue Cross’ Personal Choice PPO Platinum plan because I can go anywhere I want,” said Phares, who has a complex health history.

She clicked through several screens until reaching the “Confirm And Save Your Health Care Plan” page. The moment had come. She put the cursor on Confirm and clicked. The screen faded, and in the foreground appeared the familiar spinning icon and “Please Wait.” Phares did a drum roll with her fingers.

Seconds became minutes. The icon and “Please Wait” disappeared, replaced by the Confirm page. Phares was confused. Was she enrolled? Not sure, she clicked confirm again. The sequence repeated. By the seventh time, the spinning wheel had become trance inducing.

It was time for a fourth help-line call.

Phares explained what she had done and how she had no idea whether her choice had been registered. Over the next hour, the rep asked questions and put her on hold to confer with “internal support.”

She finally advised Phares to contact the health insurer and gave her a phone number and web address.

But Phares wanted reassurance that her information was part of the government website.

“You are definitely enrolled,” the rep said.

Hearing that, Phares said that she might just wait to get final confirmation from the site.

“At this point I wouldn’t do that,” the rep said. “There is no telling what is going on as far as what glitches you might encounter.”

Three days later — and after a morning spent on hold with Independence Blue Cross (IBC) — Phares still didn’t know whether she was successful. An IBC spokesman said it had no record of her enrolling, but noted that signups can take a few days to post.