A quick note to the approximately 200 parties who send an email to me at the Star-Telegram in a typical day at the above address: “This is not a valid email address.”At least that’s what I was told by the Health Insurance Marketplace, aka the federal online exchange at the center of the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. It was one of many, many roadblocks I ran into as I tried to get on the website to create an account and look at health insurance plans offered in North Texas.I’m not the only one to experience big-time problems with the exchange, which comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed news of the program’s woes.For instance, Charles Peeler, a longtime Arlington resident who’s now a health insurance agent in Frisco, couldn’t wait to show me last week how he finally managed to get through. Like just about every other live demonstration, however, it didn’t work when the audience was watching.The good news is that Peeler now says he has managed to guide more than 20 clients through the exchange to apply for a policy. After three weeks of off-and-on efforts, I have gotten through just part of the exchange.But if it weren’t my job, I would have given up and waited for the government to fix it.Tuesday, Oct. 1Like the exchange, I had a rough start. The first time I visited healthcare.gov was the morning of Oct. 1. I was at home, where I used a year-old Apple computer and the latest versions of a couple of different browsers, including Safari and Firefox.The first few times I went to the website, I got the dreaded “Please wait” message. At some point, I reached a page that asked me to create security questions and answers. The problem was, the questions wouldn’t show up in the drop-down menus in any of the browsers I tried.So I headed into work, where I made some progress. With Google’s Chrome browser on a laptop running Windows XP, the drop-down menu questions were visible. But throughout the day, the exchange would choke when I tried to create an account. It would freeze. It would trot out the “Please wait” message. I tried several dozen times during the day.It wasn’t long before news reports reflected the same experiences.Tuesday, Oct. 2As it would do many times during this little endeavor, healthcare.gov teased me the next morning with visions of success. It accepted my username and password (which I wrote down and pinned on my cubicle wall) as well as the three security questions that wouldn’t display on my Mac. It promised to send me an email confirmation.Lo and behold, it did! I watched the email pop into my inbox, then read instructions that said to click on a link to complete the account creation. I clicked after maybe five seconds. I’m a fast reader, but that wasn’t fast enough. The email link took me to the exchange, which told me it was processing my request, and then this: “Oops. You didn’t check your email in time.”What?! Guys, you can’t do it any faster than that. I clicked on the email link again, with the same result. I decided to give it a rest.An hour or so later, I clicked on the email link, and whaddayaknow. “Success! Your account has been created.” That wasn’t so hard, was it?So now to Log In. Boy, am I glad I wrote down that username and password. Not that it did any good.“Forgot password,” the exchange said. “You answered one or more of your security questions incorrectly,” it said. Drop dead, I responded.By this time, news outlets were filled with reports of the balky website. I tried off and on over the next few days to log in, usually getting either the “Please wait” message or the “Forgot password” message. I tried to change my password, but I couldn’t because my answers to the security questions didn’t work.Friday, Oct. 11At some point during the week, seemingly at random, the username and password were accepted. I didn’t ask why but was just happy to move on. Then I got the optimistically named “Success URL” page. That’s the Web designer’s description, not the result. The page is blank and remains blank no matter how many times I reload it.Whenever I reached a Web page that seemed to have content but wouldn’t display, I started to suspect a browser issue. I was about to try Firefox but thought, “What about Internet Explorer?” No, surely they wouldn’t make the site compatible with that, the one that my financial websites see before politely asking me whether I wouldn’t rather use a “modern” browser.But that worked. I rolled my eyes and carried on — slowly. Over the next week, the website would counsel patience. “Oh, there are soooooooooo many users trying to use the page.” Whatever. I didn’t get much further. Wednesday, Oct. 16This is the day when Peeler called to try to work through the website together. As I mentioned, he couldn’t get through but, once again, seemingly at random, I got to a page I hadn’t seen before. “James, what would you like to do?” it asked. Apply for new coverage, I said, but clicking on the large bold type produced nothing.Peeler had been here before and had advice: Click on something that doesn’t look like a link. I saw a line of inconspicuous type, without the underline that links often have. I clicked it. I was further along the exchange than ever, answering all sorts of personal questions. Really? Homeland Security is interested in me? I feel so special.Then I hit the “This is not a valid email address message.” I re-entered it. Nothing worked. I let it rest.Wednesday, Oct. 23I called Peeler to get an update for this report, and he told me that, yes, he managed to get all the way through numerous times and sign up clients. “I’m stubborn,” he said. Inspired, I decided to try something, anything.The email address that stymied me previously was needed for the exchange to contact me. But I saw that getting a text message was also an option. It was worth a try. I erased the email, indicated that I wanted to be contacted by text and entered my cellphone number. It accepted, and I was in.I answered more personal questions, thinking I was finally wrapping things up, and hit a button that said I’d be getting a message in my Marketplace account. I received a link in my email (you know, the one that’s invalid) that told me to “click here to log in and read the message.” I clicked, logged in and came to a page that told me I have a message. I clicked on that and was sent to the first page of the application process. Three times I tried, three times I’m back on that first page. After three weeks, I’m not at square one, but I’m not at the finish, either.
Jim Fuquay, 817-390-7552 Twitter: @jimfuquay