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Obamacare launch hits early hitch as online traffic snarls up sites

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(Reuters) - The U.S. government launched the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare reform on Tuesday, opening new insurance marketplaces across the country for millions of uninsured Americans, but technical glitches prevented early access to many of their websites.

The opening of the state marketplaces, or exchanges, went ahead despite a partial federal government shutdown precipitated by Republican opposition to the healthcare law that deadlocked a spending bill in Congress.

But a federally run exchange for consumers in 36 states began posting error messages for at least 24 of them soon after the system opened for enrollment at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), citing online traffic as a reason for the difficulties. An administration official said experts were aware of the issue and were working on it.

"Consumers who need help can also contact the call center, use the live chat function or go to localhelp.healthcare.gov to find an in-person assistor in their community," the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.

Exchanges run by 14 states and the District of Columbia presented a mixed picture. Some, like Massachusetts, were able to accept consumer log-ins. The state-run exchange in Maryland delayed its opening by four hours, while Minnesota said it would wait until the afternoon after checking its connection with federal databases.

The websites will give many Americans their first glimpse of new subsidized health plans that are being offered to millions of the uninsured, in the most ambitious U.S. social program since Medicare was introduced in the 1960s.

Administration officials said they had expected a rocky opening because of the challenge of building a massive technological infrastructure within a short time.

Obama was scheduled to promote his signature domestic policy achievement on Tuesday, including a meeting in the Oval Office with a group of Americans who stand to benefit from the program, while Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama will also promote the law in the media.

The marketplaces, or exchanges, require health plans to provide a broad range of essential benefits that were not necessarily part of individual policies in the past, including mental health services, birth control and preventive care. The coverage is linked to other insurance market reforms and new consumer safeguards, including a ban on discrimination based on gender and health history.

The Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, also mandates that Americans obtain insurance or pay a fine.

"For years, the financial, physical or mental health of millions of Americans suffered because they couldn't afford the care they or their family needed," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement on Tuesday. "But thanks to the health care law, all of that is changing. Today's launch begins a new day when health care coverage will be more accessible and affordable than ever before."

Republicans have fought for months to delay or stop Obamacare, most recently triggering a shutdown of the federal government on Monday night by insisting that a routine funding measure include a delay in Obamacare, which the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected.

"The Affordable Care Act is moving forward. That funding is already in place. You can't shut it down," Obama told his Republican opponents in a televised statement at the White House on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Lewis Krauskopf and Sharon Begley in New York; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Michele Gersberg and Grant McCool)

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