By Curtis Skinner
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Community organizations and non-profit groups that were supposed to help millions of Americans sign up for "Obamacare" are trying to manage mounting frustration with a federal website hobbled by technical problems.
Dozens of these groups, known as "navigators," received federal grants to guide consumers through the government's Healthcare.gov website serving 36 states, which is meant to help the uninsured determine their eligibility for tax credits toward buying private coverage under President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law, known as Obamacare.
The site is allowing only a trickle of users to advance through the enrollment process since its launch on October 1.
Lauren Banks, director of policy and advocacy at AIDS Alabama, had expected a rocky rollout. The group received the largest navigator award in the state - just over $500,000 - and had planned kick-off events for the first weekend of November.
"This is a journey not some quick fix," Banks said. "But sure, people were so ready to take their little tablets and enroll people ... It's important for us to keep the morale going."
Banks said her contacts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assured her they were doing everything possible to fix the capacity and software problems slowing the site, but have not given a timetable for when they will be resolved.
Communication with the department since October 1 has been far less frequent, she said, due to the partial government shutdown that furloughed her organization's grant officer, and consolidated other groups around the state under another.
"They still have been in communication with us, it's just not been as close as it was," she said. "Before, I could pick up my phone and call my grant officer."
In the meantime, her group is helping consumers fill out paper applications to determine their eligibility for subsidies and holding events in dozens of places in Alabama to explain the law to residents.
"They're doing really important work right now, and building trust in the community, and not giving up in this process," she said.
APPLY, WAIT 10 WEEKS
Experts say the Obama administration has until mid-November to iron out the technology problems or risk jeopardizing its ability to sign up an estimated 7 million people for 2014, the first year the law, formally called the Affordable Care Act, takes full effect.
That is based on the assumption the new insurance exchanges in 50 states will see a surge in enrollment in the weeks leading to December 15, the last day to enroll to qualify for benefits starting on January 1.
The Department of Health and Human Services has not released any enrollment data, but expects to do so in mid-November.
Some lawmakers say the Obama administration should consider extending the open enrollment period past the deadline of the end of March.
"I would support extending additional time to enroll given the complications with the website and government shutdown," said Democratic Texas Representative Gene Green.
Navigators have been leading prospective applicants through paper and phone applications to get the process started. But it can take as many as 10 weeks from starting a paper application through actually enrolling in a plan, they said.
"We're cautioning people about the time frame. We tell people that we're hopeful the website will be up and running in the next week or two, so if they can put off the paper application until the websites are up, that's the preferable route right now," said Tim McKinney, president and CEO of the United Way of Tarrant County, Texas' largest navigator grantee with a nearly $5.9 million award.
McKinney said as far as he knew, submitting an online application with a paper one pending should not cause any new problems.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not respond directly to questions on the 10 week time frame, saying only that processing times are likely to vary, based on the complexity of the household and the completeness of an application and supporting documents that are submitted.
Health and Human Services has said Healthcare.gov received 14.6 million unique visits in its first 10 days, indicating strong interest in the most public-facing component of the health law.
"When you get trained on how to do something, there's definitely going to be frustration with the website being down. But my message to them is to be patient and it will come up," McKinney said.
In the meantime, helpers from Texas to Florida have kept busy doing outreach and education at churches, schools, local businesses and health fairs, the other half of the dual function navigators play under the health reform law.
"There is a considerable amount of time being spent on the education piece, just explaining things like deductibles and premiums. Before you ever get to a point of examining plans, those kinds of conversations are really necessary," said Jodi Ray, project director for Florida's largest navigator, housed in the University of South Florida.
(Additional reporting by David Morgan in Washington.; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Christopher Wilson)