Bloomberg News

Health Exchange Insurer Bug Fixed as 1 Million Try Site

December 03, 2013

Healthcare.gov Website

The rush yesterday to healthcare.gov followed a Dec. 1 report saying that six weeks of work had improved its use for most consumers. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

More than 1 million visitors gave the Obamacare website another chance yesterday as the government continued to work on software repairs, including a fix to the system that sends customer data to insurers.

The rush to healthcare.gov followed a Dec. 1 report saying that six weeks of work had improved its use for most consumers. The administration said 380,000 more people had visited the site as of noon today New York time, as President Barack Obama began a campaign to bolster support for the law.

The website’s software initially prevented Social Security numbers from being included in data sent to insurers, blocking complete enrollments in health plans. A fix announced yesterday will end most of those errors, said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. A team of agency staff, software contractors and insurers is working on fixing the enrollment reports, known in the industry as 834 forms, Bataille said today on a conference call.

“We are making a lot of progress to punch out the issues that we have diagnosed,” Bataille told reporters. The effort is focused on ensuring “every 834 form, those past and present, are accurate and received.”

Bataille wouldn’t say how many enrollment reports were faulty, and insurers didn’t immediately report improvement in the data.

Obama Speech

Obama, in a Washington speech, kicked off a three-week campaign intended to regain support for the law. He urged uninsured Americans to give the website another chance ahead of a Dec. 23 deadline to apply for coverage that starts Jan. 1.

“Our poor execution in the first couple of months on the website clouded the fact that there are a whole bunch of people who stand to benefit,” he said.

Federal officials said they are continuing to work on improvements for the U.S. website that serves 36 states. Fourteen states have their own health marketplaces.

The White House said yesterday it would name a new chief to run the U.S. exchange after Jeffrey Zients, who has overseen repairs of the online marketplace, becomes the president’s chief economic adviser in January. Zients is scheduled to begin his main job “early next year,” when a successor will take over as the public face of the federal exchange, the president’s press secretary, Jay Carney, said yesterday.

Management Post

“We have seen in the way that Jeff has worked in that role, that, that kind of management position needs to be filled even after he comes over to the White House,” Carney said.

Carney said he didn’t know how the “structure” of the position may change after Zients leaves. Obama allies outside the White House including Ezekiel Emanuel, who advised him during debate on the health-care law, have said the president should name a chief executive officer to lead the federal health insurance exchange.

Healthcare.gov was designed to help uninsured Americans buy new health plans by March 31, as required under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare. While 106,185 people were able to select private plans through the federal and state exchanges last month, almost 1 million more abandoned the application process before choosing a plan amid website outages and software problems.

Medicaid Expansion

While the exchange works to ease enrollment with private insurers, about 1.46 million people were determined eligible last month for coverage through Medicaid, the joint state-federal program for the poor, and the state-run Children’s Health Insurance Program, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said today in a blog post.

The health law widens eligibility for those programs, and monthly applications have jumped 15 percent in states that are participating, the department said. Twenty-four states, led by Republican critics of the health law, have opted out of the Medicaid expansion.

The growth “shows a real need and desire for coverage for low income Americans,” HHS said in the blog post.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected 9 million Americans will gain coverage through Medicaid and CHIP.

While the Medicaid portion of the health law is seeing some success, Obama’s inner circle has seized more day-to-day control of the healthcare.gov website to boost enrollment in private plans. The government said in a Dec. 1 report that it had met its goals for repairs to the site, and that most Americans who use it should be able to successfully enroll in health plans.

It wasn’t immediately clear if that was true.

100,000 Enrollees

About 100,000 people were able to select plans using the federal system in November, while it was under repair, according to a personal familiar with the project. The administration said it would release official enrollment data monthly, so sign-ups in December aren’t expected to be reported until mid-January.

Traffic at the site yesterday exceeded 1 million users, more than its upgraded capacity of 800,000 after six weeks of repairs. That caused technicians to deploy a new queuing system from about 10 a.m. yesterday that prevents too many people from trying to enroll at the same time.

The queuing system, which appeared to be operating intermittently yesterday, restricts use of the site to fewer than 50,000 people at the same time.

Error Rate

Yesterday’s error rate of 0.9 percent per page still means users may have encountered problems in clicking through multiple pages to enroll in a health plan.

It also wasn’t clear if insurers were getting better data as a result of the government’s effort. Each night, healthcare.gov is supposed to send a batch of new enrollments to the insurers. While these so-called 834 files have long been an industry standard in the private sector, the ones sent previously from the Obamacare exchange were often missing data or corrupted to the point that they couldn’t be opened.

Bataille told reporters she had no information about what percentage of 834 transactions are erroneous or how many transmissions the federal enrollment system had made.

“Health plans continue to experience significant problems with the ‘834’ enrollment files,” Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s Washington-based lobby group, said in an e-mail.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Wayne in Washington at awayne3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net


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