John Petrila's health policy class at the University of South Florida is full of undergraduate students glued to their smartphones, tablets and laptops. A perfect place, he reasoned, to test the Healthcare.gov website.
“These folks are savvy. Every person in here is a tech savvy person whose used to being online,” Petrila said. “No one's in here thinking, ‘Well, what's the Internet?’ If these folks can't navigate this website, then that's a serious problem."
There is a serious problem. They tried with different browsers, including Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer. A few students had iPads, but they wouldn't scroll. They somehow figured out they might have better luck by clearing their browser history; that got them further.
“I've been trying to create an account, which is kind of interesting because you'll click on it and it doesn't take you to anything else,” said Rachel McCollister, a senior public health major. “So, I thought maybe what's up here right now is create your own account, but I keep trying and I'm having a lot of difficulty.”
She couldn't create a username and password, so she tried the “live chat” window. The woman on the other end told her to check her inbox for a message from Healthcare.gov. McCollister said she had never entered her email address on the site.
About three hundred man hours later, Petrila said the Health Insurance Marketplace website isn’t the shopping experience most of us are used to.
“What it claims to be, I think, is a place where you can go, look at an inventory, price it, compare it, and then at least make some tentative decisions about whether that fits your need or not,” Petrila said. “I didn't hear anything from any of these students that suggested they could do that."
During the classroom discussion, students shared that the links didn’t work. Another student was re-directed to mail in his application.
"Which is counterintuitive when it comes to doing things online," Petrila said. "This would have been a great website in the 19th century, it sounds like."
Petrila jokes and has fun in his class. But the website issues do trouble him, especially for students who actually need it to work so they can sign up for health coverage.
Yaisial Monatnez, a senior public health major, is one of the more than 3.8 million uninsured Floridians. For her, this wasn't only a class exercise.
"Children under 26 years old can be on their parents' health insurance, but my mom doesn't have health insurance so I really kind of have to get my own,” Montanez said. “I have had situations and I've had to pay out of pocket and it can cost a lot of money, so I know I have to do something soon."
During the first month of open enrollment on the new Health Insurance Marketplace, only about 3,500 Floridians picked a plan.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the top federal health official, was in Florida this week to put a positive spin on the rocky rollout.
"The website is on a constant improvement plan,” Sebelius said. “It is so much better today than it was at the beginning of October and we don't want people to be discouraged from using the website today, tomorrow and the next day."
The Obama Administration has said most of the site's problems will be fixed by the end of the month – so Petrila's students just might have another chance to test Healthcare.gov before the semester is over.