FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- Counselors helping people use the federal government's online health exchange are giving mixed reviews to the updated site, with some zipping through the application process while others are facing the same old sputters and even crashes.
The Obama administration had promised a vastly improved shopping experience on healthcare.gov by the end of November, and Monday was the first business day since the date passed.
Brokers and online assisters in Utah say three of every four people successfully signed up for health coverage on the online within an hour of logging in. A state official overseeing North Dakota's navigators said he had noticed improvements in the site, as did organizations helping people sign up in parts of Alabama and Wisconsin.
But staffers at an organization in South Florida and a hospital group with locations in Iowa and Illinois said they have seen no major improvements from the federal website, which 36 states are relying on.
Amanda Crowell, director of revenue cycle for UnityPoint Health-Trinity, which has four hospitals in Iowa and Illinois, said the organization's 15 enrollment counselors did not see a marked improvement on the site.
"We had very high hopes for today, but those hopes were very much quashed," said Crowell. She said out of a dozen attempts online only one person was able to get to the point of plan selection, though the person decided to wait.
The site appeared to generally run smoothly early Monday morning before glitches began slowing people down. By 10 a.m., federal health officials deployed a new queue system that stalls new visitors on a waiting page so that those further along in the process can finish their application with fewer problems.
About 750,000 had visited the site by Monday night - about double the traffic for a typical Monday, according to figures from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Roberta Vann, a certified application counselor at the Hamilton Health Center, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said the site worked well for her Monday morning but she became frustrated later when the site went down.
"You can get to a point, but it does not allow you to select any plans, you can't get eligibility (information). It stops there," she said. "The thought of it working as well as it was didn't last long."
In South Florida, John Foley and his team of navigators were only able to successfully enroll one of a handful of return applicants who came to their office before glitches started, including wonky estimates for subsidy eligibility. He worried about how they would fare with the roughly 50 other appointments scheduled later in the week.
Although frustrated, most were not deterred, he said.
"These are people that have policies going away, who have health problems. These are people that are going to be very persistent," said Foley, an attorney and certified counselor for Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.
Despite the Obama administration's team of technicians working around the clock, it's not clear if the site will be able to handle the surge of applicants expected by the Dec. 23 deadline to enroll for coverage starting at the beginning of the year. Many navigators also say they're concerned the bad publicity plaguing the troubled website will prevent people from giving the system another try.
"There's a trust level that we feel like we broke with them. We told them we were here to help them and we can't help them," said Valerie Spencer, an enrollment counselor at Sarah Bush Lincoln Center, a small regional hospital in the central Illinois city of Mattoon.
Federal health officials acknowledged the website is still a work in progress. They've also acknowledged the importance of fixing back-end problems as insurers struggle to process applications because of incomplete or inaccurate data. Even when consumers think they've gone through the whole process, their information may not get to the insurer without problems.
"We do know that things are not perfect with the site. We will continue to make improvements and upgrades," said Julie Bataille, communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
In less than an hour Monday, Starla Redmon, 58, of Paris, Ill., was able to successfully get into a health plan with help from an enrollment counselor. Redmon, who juggles two part-time jobs and has been uninsured for four years, said she was surprised the website worked so well after hearing reports about its problems.
"Everything she typed in, it went through," said Redmon, who chose a bronze plan and will pay about $75 a month after a tax credit. "It was the cheapest plan I could go with."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Carla K. Johnson in Chicago; Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas; Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa; Peter Jackson in Harrisburg, Pa.; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis.; James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D.; Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; and Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala.
Follow Kelli Kennedy on Twitter at twitter.com/kkennedyAP.
NEW YORK (AP) — Jeff Bezos' idea to let self-guided drones deliver packages may be too futuristic for Washington to handle.
The Amazon CEO is working on a way to use the small aircraft to get parcels to customers in 30 minutes or less. While flight technology makes it feasible, U.S. law and society's attitude toward drones haven't caught up with Bezos' vision.
Amazon.com Inc. says it's working on the so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft project but it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations.
The project was first reported by CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday night, hours before millions of shoppers turned to their computers to hunt Cyber Monday bargains.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in the interview that while his octocopters look like something out of science fiction, there's no reason they can't be used as delivery vehicles.
Bezos said the drones can carry packages that weigh up to five pounds, which covers about 86 percent of the items Amazon delivers. The drones the company is testing have a range of about 10 miles, which Bezos noted could cover a significant portion of the population in urban areas.
Bezos told "60 Minutes" the project could become a working service in four or five years.
Unlike the drones used by the military, Bezos' proposed flying machines won't need humans to control them remotely. Amazon's drones would receive a set of GPS coordinates and automatically fly to them, presumably avoiding buildings, power lines and other obstacles.
Delivery drones raise a host of concerns, from air traffic safety to homeland security and privacy. There are technological and legal obstacles, too —similar to Google's experimental driverless car. How do you design a machine that safely navigates the roads or skies without hitting anything? And, if an accident occurs, who's legally liable?
Delivering packages by drone might be impossible in a city like Washington D.C. which has many no-fly zones.
But technology entrepreneur and futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that "technology has always been a double edged sword."
"Fire kept us warm and cooked our food but also was used to burn down our villages," says Kurzweil.
"It's fascinating as an idea and probably very hard to execute," says Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies who sees Bezos as an unconventional thinker. "If he could really deliver something you order within 30 minutes, he would rewrite the rules of online retail."
Amazon has already done that once. In 1995, with investments from family and friends, Bezos began operating Amazon as an online bookseller out of a Seattle garage. Over nearly two decades, Amazon grew to become the world's largest online retailer, selling everything from shoes to groceries to diapers and power tools.
Amazon spends heavily on growing its business, improving order fulfillment and expanding into new areas. Those investments have come at the expense of consistent profitability, but investors have been largely forgiving, focusing on the company's long-term promise and double-digit revenue growth.
The company spent almost $2.9 billion in shipping last year, accounting for 4.7 percent of its net sales.
There is no prohibition on flying drones for recreational use, but since 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration has said they can't be used for commercial purposes.
"The technology has moved forward faster than the law has kept pace," says Brendan Schulman, special counsel at the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP.
Schulman is currently challenging that regulation before a federal administrative law judge on behalf of a client who was using a radio-controlled aircraft to shoot video for an advertising agency. Autonomous flights like Amazon is proposing, without somebody at the controls, are also prohibited.
The FAA is slowly moving forward with guidelines on commercial drone use. Last year, Congress directed the agency to grant drones access to U.S. skies by September 2015. But the agency already has missed several key deadlines and said the process would take longer than Congress expected.
The FAA plans to propose rules next year that could allow limited use of drones weighing up to 55 pounds. But those rules are expected to include major restrictions on where drones can fly, posing significant limits on what Amazon could do. Many of the commercial advances in drone use have come out of Europe, Australia, and Japan. In Australia, for instance, an electric company is using drones to check on remote power lines.
"The delay has really been to the disadvantage of companies here," Schulman says. "Generally, the government wants to promote the advancement of science and technology. In this case, the government has done exactly the opposite and thwarted the ability of small, startup companies to develop commercial applications for this revolutionary technology."
Amazon isn't the only company awaiting guidelines. A Domino's franchise in the United Kingdom released a test flight video in June of the "DomiCopter," a drone used to deliver hot pizza.
"We think it's cool that places like Amazon are exploring the concept," says Domino's spokesman Chris Brandon. "We'd be surprised if the FAA ever let this fly in the States — but we will surely stay tuned to see where this all goes."
Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska and head of the university's Drone Journalism Lab, says a bigger problem for Amazon is that the rules are not expected to allow autonomous drones, so a remote pilot would have to be in command of the aircraft at all times.
Indeed, the FAA said Monday that it is moving forward with "regulations and standards for the safe integration of remote piloted (drones) to meet increased demand." The agency reiterated that "autonomous (drone) operation is not currently allowed in the United States."
Given the slow pace at which the FAA typically approves regulations, Waite calls Bezos' prediction of four or five years for approval unrealistic.
Safety concerns could be the real obstacle in delaying drones for widespread commercial use.
"You're putting a device with eight rapidly spinning blades into areas where people are assumed to be," Waite says. "The threat to people on the ground is significant."
It's not hard to imagine that the world's biggest online retailer has some significant lobbying muscle and might be able to persuade the FAA to alter the rules.
Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako says the company has been in contact with the FAA "as they are actively working on necessary regulation."
One of the biggest promises for civilian drone use is in agriculture because of the industry's largely unpopulated, wide open spaces. Delivering Amazon packages in midtown Manhattan will be much trickier. But the savings of such a delivery system only come in large, urban areas.
Besides regulatory approval, Amazon's biggest challenge will be to develop a collision avoidance system, says Darryl Jenkins, a consultant who gave up on the commercial airline industry and now focuses on drones.
Who is to blame, Jenkins asked, if the drone hits a bird, crashes into a building? Who is going to insure the deliveries?
There are also technical questions. Who will recharge the drone batteries? How many deliveries can the machines make before needing service?
"Jeff Bezos might be the single person in the universe who could make something like this happen," Jenkins says. "For what it worth, this is a guy who's totally changed retailing."
If Amazon gets its way, others might follow.
United Parcel Service Co. executives heard a presentation from a drone vendor earlier this year, says Alan Gershenhorn, UPS' chief sales, marketing and strategy officer.
"Commercial use of drones is an interesting technology, and we're certainly going to continue to evaluate it," Gershenhorn says.
The U.S. Postal Service and FedEx wouldn't speculate about using drones for delivery.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal consumer finance watchdog is expanding its oversight to Sallie Mae and other companies that collect student loan payments.
A rule issued Tuesday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau extends the agency's supervision to nonbank companies that manage large volumes of student loans on behalf of lenders.
The CFPB already oversees banks that service student loans, but it says most student loans are serviced by nonbank companies. It says the scrutiny is needed to ensure servicers comply with consumer laws at a time when more people are falling behind on their student loan payments.
Nonbank loan servicers like Sallie Mae manage borrowers' accounts and answer their questions. Borrowers have complained that the companies lose paperwork or fail to credit payments.
Sallie Mae also is the biggest U.S. student lender.
Martha Holler, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, said that as the largest U.S. servicer of student loans, "We have been engaged with the CFPB in the review of our lending, servicing and collections operations."
In addition to Sallie Mae, formally known as SLM Corp., other nonbank companies that service student loans include American Education Services, Nelnet Inc. and ACS Education Services, which is owned by Xerox Corp. The seven largest servicers cover a combined total of about 49 million borrower accounts, representing most of the student loan servicing market, according to the CFPB. The agency said it expects all seven companies will come under its supervision.
Outstanding student debt in the U.S. totals about $1.2 trillion, according to the CFPB, and an estimated 7 million student loan borrowers are currently in default.
Under the new rule, which takes effect March 1, any nonbank student loan servicer that handles more than 1 million borrower accounts will be subject to the agency's oversight. That means the agency will monitor the companies and examine their internal procedures, data and other information.
While borrowers usually can choose their student lender, they normally have no choice over which company services the loan.
"Student loan borrowers should be able to rest assured that when they make a payment toward their loans, the company that takes their money is playing by the rules," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement. "This rule brings new oversight to those large student loan servicers that touch tens of millions of borrowers."
The agency is the primary federal supervisor for a range of industries, including payday loan companies, student lenders, mortgage companies, credit bureaus and debt collectors. It was established by the 2010 financial overhaul law enacted in response to the crisis that started in 2008.