Official: Exchange Site Unlikely To Be Fixed by Nov. 30 Deadline
The Obama administration likely will miss its self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline to repair the federal health insurance exchange, as there continues to be significant issues in the system, according to an official familiar with the project, the Washington Post reports.
Several White House officials, as well as President Obama, publicly have stated that the problem-plagued HealthCare.gov would be functioning properly by the end of the month. CMS spokesperson Julie Bataille said, "We are working 24/7 to make improvements so that by the end of the month the site is working smoothly for the vast majority of users," adding, "We are making progress, including fixes to reduce error rates and get the site moving faster."
However, the official -- who spoke on the condition of anonymity -- said CGI Federal, the lead contractor on the project, has succeeded in repairing about six of every 10 issues it has encountered so far. The official added that the system continues to fail when more than 20,000 to 30,000 users -- about half of its intended capacity -- attempt to sign on simultaneously.
The official explained that the software problems causing the website to crash when there are too many users mean that consumers attempting to access the site face frozen computer screens when they try to enter data or encounter time-out errors.
In response, federal officials are considering a "divide-and-conquer strategy" that would direct consumers to other enrollment avenues, such as contacting federal call centers or insurers directly. However, those pathways are affected by similar technical problems.
For example, representatives at the 17 federally sponsored call centers do not have the authority to correct errors in online applications, while some consumers who have called the centers with more routine questions have reported that specialists never call them back.
According to the official, those working to fix the exchange website hope to streamline the system so that it can handle outside queries from insurers and call centers within two or three weeks (Goldstein et al., Washington Post, 11/12).
Meanwhile, insurers and federal officials also are examining other ways to help U.S. residents bypass the website's problems and enroll in coverage, the New York Times reports.
One of the main problems is the website's inability to communicate with insurers and determine their eligibility for and amount of any subsidy they receive. According to the Times, the federal government is tasked with verifying subsidy eligibility, using individual's personal data, while insurers can only provide an estimate.
Among the solutions being discussed is:
- Allowing people to enroll before their paperwork is complete;
- Allowing consumers to estimate their own federal subsidies and postpone the official estimate;
- Extending the deadline for obtaining insurance; and
- Giving insurers the authority to enroll people and calculate their subsidies.
According to the Times, the administration has resisted the last option in part because of concerns over privacy and security issues. Such a move would give insurers access to patients' personal data, including confidential financial and tax information and immigration status.
However, insurers have raised concerns over allowing consumers to determine their own subsidies because the estimated amounts could be more than the actual subsidy amount, potentially leaving the insurers or individuals responsible for the difference.
Insurers also oppose the idea of extending the open enrollment period because they say it will encourage young healthy adults to delay signing up for coverage and could affect their ability to price plans for 2015 (Abelson et al., New York Times, 11/11).
White House IT Staff Missed Red Flags
In related news, White House technology executives missed a key warning about the federal exchange website's problems, according to sources familiar with the project, the Wall Street Journal reports.
In March, the IT Dashboard, a federal website that provides public data on the status of major government technology projects, downgraded the HealthCare.gov website to red, or high-risk, before returning it to green the following month.
Officials have attributed the downgrade to slowness when users submitted information, not any actual change in the project's status. However, Dave Powner, who reviews government technology projects for the Government Accountability Office, said the downgrade should have triggered alarm bells.
Meanwhile, Ray Bjorklund -- a former Pentagon procurement official who heads a firm that researches federal technology projects -- and former White House innovation fellow Clay Johnson said the IT Dashboard is flawed because it measures a program based on its adherence to its budget and schedule, not its performance. Johnson said only a developer or someone with a strong technical background would have been able to look at the code and detect the future problems (Nagesh, Wall Street Journal, 11/12).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.