Heidi Rozek showed up at a Madison job center two minutes before it opened Tuesday, full of questions about how the new federal health care law would affect her.
Rozek, who has no health insurance, got many of her questions answered. But others who wanted to actually sign up for insurance through the new federal exchange, or marketplace, weren't so lucky. Instead of being able to shop for coverage online, they were greeted with this message much of the day: "The System is Down at the Moment." Callers to the federal call center also reported long wait times.
A combination of high demand and technical glitches seemed to overwhelm the online system, marring the much-anticipated launch of the exchange — a central part of President Obama's health care overhaul law.
"It's disappointing, but it's not a shock that there's so many people trying to get online that that's going to create problems," said Jon Peacock, research director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. "I am cautiously optimistic that this isn't symptomatic of deeper problems. I think they'll get the bugs out before too long."
While online and telephone traffic caused delays and disruptions, there was no wait for those who sought out personal assistance at the Dane County Job Center, one of several locations around the state offering help Tuesday.
Only about a dozen people showed up in person to get help during the first three hours it was open with rows of computers at the ready.
"We're seeing a virtual line," said Amy Mendel-Clemens, a Dane County Department of Human Services administrator, looking over the mostly empty room. Large-screen televisions in both corners displayed the federal website and the message that it was experiencing delays.
There's still plenty of time for people to get help and sign up. Open enrollment continues through March 31, but Dec. 15 is the deadline to have a plan in place starting in January.
Most people purchase insurance through their employers and won't be directly affected by the start of the exchange. Under the health care law, every American must have health insurance starting in January or face paying a penalty.
The online and telephone glitches came on the same day that the federal government partially shut down as Congress remained deadlocked in a battle over funding the government or delaying the health law.
The shutdown will have no immediate effect on the insurance marketplaces because they operate with money that isn't subject to the annual budget wrangling in Washington.
Like many Republicans, Gov. Scott Walker opposes the health care law, and he has resisted implementing it since its passage three years ago. Wisconsin is one of 36 states that deferred to the federal government to run their exchanges, and Walker turned down federal money to pay for Medicaid coverage for people earning between 100 percent and 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
About 700,000 Wisconsin residents were expected to shop for insurance coverage on the new online marketplace, healthcare.gov, where federally subsidized private insurance plans are available to purchase.
Several of those who were among the first in Wisconsin to seek personal help in the opening hours of the enrollment period Tuesday admitted to being bewildered about the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare" by its Republican detractors.
"I'm really confused by this," Rozek said after speaking with one of four counselors available to assist those looking to sign up or get more information. "I came out in hopes of getting something to get some help."
It turned out that Rozek, 41, didn't need to shop for private insurance coverage through the exchange. She learned that because she is unemployed and has no income, she will likely qualify for BadgerCare Medicaid coverage instead.
Stacey Kornegay, 37, said she works part-time and earns just above the poverty line, so she wouldn't qualify for BadgerCare. The new income eligibility limit for Medicaid starting in January will be $11,500 for an individual or $23,550 for a family of four.
Kornegay came Tuesday to get more information about plans available through the exchange and wasn't bothered by the computer glitches. She said she intended to call the toll-free number later to sign up.
Kornegay said she's gone five months without insurance.
"I haven't had a physical in I don't know how long," she said.