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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The messy rollout of the ObamaCare health care exchanges has one benefit for the plan's supporters.

MONTAGNE: Having started so badly, the administration has a very low bar to show improvement. Yesterday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before Congress.

INSKEEP: Though the numbers of people who have signed up for individual insurance plans is still far below expectations, Sebelius said the website has improved.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: It's now easier than ever to shop for plans and enroll online, over the phone, in paper, in person, or directly through an issuer or agent.

INSKEEP: That's the upside according to Sebelius. The downside here is that millions of Americans have yet to get coverage, including those whose prior policies have been cancelled.

NPR's Richard Knox has the saga of one man who's been trying for six weeks to sign up.

RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: Doug Normington is a 58-year-old self-employed videographer in Madison, Wisconsin. I first talked to him back on November 1.

DOUG NORMINGTON: I just got a letter, a notice of cancellation that my insurance will run out December 31, and that it cannot be renewed and that I should go to the exchange to find new insurance.

KNOX: But like millions to others, Normington ran into a dead end again and again. He agreed to let me follow along with him over the phone. Here's an attempt he made on November 22.

NORMINGTON: OK, so I'm at the Get Insurance page now and I'm going to click View My Current Applications. And I'm going to click View Eligibility Results. And I hit the same wall here. I get a PDF file that I can't read.

KNOX: It's seems like there's a - this needs to be kicked up to a higher level of diagnosis.

NORMINGTON: I want to talk to Obama.

(LAUGHTER)

NORMINGTON: I think he's the keeper of the key.

KNOX: But he has to settle for a telephone support person.

NORMINGTON: So this error that you're seeing, is that happening to everybody? Or is it just happening to me?

(SOUNDBITE OF A ELECTRONIC TONE)

NORMINGTON: OK, I just lost contact with him.

KNOX: Oh. He just disappeared?

NORMINGTON: Yeah.

KNOX: But finally, after a half dozen tries at all times of the day and night, Doug Normington has a breakthrough on December 5.

NORMINGTON: So I went in today and magically that issue has resolved itself. And I can look at my various choices and know that I have a tax credit.

KNOX: Normington finds a plan that will cost him $300 a month with a $1,500 deductible, and dental coverage. He's been paying twice that in premiums, with three times the deductible and no dental.

NORMINGTON: Yes, I feel all this relief. It's great, though we have not pushed the enroll button yet. So let me click the enroll button and see what happens. Alright, now it says: Confirm your health plan selection. And then we hit Confirm and the wheel is spinning. And: Congratulations, you've successfully completed all steps of your application. See below for next steps or return to my account.

KNOX: But after all he's been hearing on the news, Normington doesn't quite believe his application really got to Unity Insurance, his new carrier. So he calls them to ask.

NORMINGTON: I'm going to try pressing zero. And when you press zero it says: Good-bye.

(LAUGHTER)

KNOX: That's a message.

NORMINGTON: That isn't what I wanted to hear from my new insurance company.

(LAUGHTER)

KNOX: But next time he calls, he gets a real person.

NORMINGTON: Oh, here we go. Hi, good afternoon. How are you?

KNOX: A fellow named Steve tells him it takes a couple of days before his application gets into Unity's database. So he should check back. This week, he tries again.

NORMINGTON: They don't have a choice that fits our call. I'm going to press 3. My last name is Normington.

KNOX: And success, the Unity Insurance woman finds his application.

NORMINGTON: Ok, great. So I'll receive a welcome letter and payment instructions and - OK, alright, well, very good. Thanks for your help. I appreciate it.

KNOX: Well, how do you feel? What are you going to do to celebrate?

NORMINGTON: I just feel relieved that, you know, it's coming together because my other insurance was going to end. So this is great. And the ironic twist is that this insurance company is a company that turned me down a year ago because I was diabetic.

(LAUGHTER)

NORMINGTON: And I'm sure there are many, many, many people who have had to pay for their own individual policies now that are in this same kind of anxious mode, because they've been cancelled. And so if it's working this well for everyone, then there should be a ton of people signing up.

KNOX: There are millions of people out there like Doug Normington who haven't yet sealed the deal, even though it's less than three weeks before their old insurance expires.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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