Officials appeal to frustrated HealthCare.gov users: Come back

McClatchy Washington BureauNovember 12, 2013 

— Confident that repairs to its HealthCare.gov website are progressing as planned, the Obama administration has begun notifying some 275,000 people who couldn’t enroll in coverage at the troubled website’s Oct. 1 debut to try again.

“Those consumers who have perhaps created an account, but not submitted an application; those consumers who have submitted an application, but not selected a plan; those would be the kinds of individuals that we anticipate reaching out to and speaking with directly over time,” said Julie Bataille, the communications director for the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Consumers in 36 states served by the federal health insurance marketplace were frustrated when the system portal, HealthCare.gov, malfunctioned minutes after open enrollment for 2014 coverage began. The problems, which stemmed from inadequate testing and a lack of capacity to handle the deluge of users, continued for weeks, leaving people unable to open personal accounts and enroll in new health care offerings.

The botched rollout spawned a series of congressional inquiries and has become a political and public relations black eye for President Barack Obama and his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

A team of government and private IT experts has been working to fix the website and the improvements have been noticeable, with faster speed, more efficient page loads and a decline in error messages. While problems remain, officials say the marketplace will be functioning properly for the majority of users by the end of November.

With that in mind, administration officials on Tuesday began emailing the first wave of 275,000 initial users who didn’t complete the enrollment process to ask them to revisit the website and finish what they started.

“We want to make sure that we are inviting individuals to come back into the system and that their experience will be a positive one,” Bataille said. “Let me be clear that by the end of November, the site will work much better for the vast majority of users. Having said that, our focus is certainly working 24/7 to ensure that the necessary fixes are put in place to make that a reality.”

In addition, Bataille said officials at the Department of Health and Human Services would continue to advise people that they also could enroll in marketplace coverage by phone, in person with trained counselors and through paper applications.

Meanwhile, a noted insurance industry consultant said the federal marketplace probably had enrolled just 40,000 to 50,000 Americans in new coverage in October because of the technical problems and glitches.

The estimate by Robert Laszewski, the president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates in Alexandria, Va., appears to square with recent news reports from unnamed administration officials who estimated that about 40,000 people had enrolled in private coverage on the marketplace last month.

Laszewski also said he was doubtful that the site would be functioning properly by the end of November.

“That is a huge question mark,” he said. “When are they going to fix the system so that people can smoothly sign up, so that the system is not a detriment to enrollment? When they do that, they can go gangbusters with the public relations campaign.”

He said an email from an industry executive who ran a health plan and had access to the enrollment data suggested that the estimate of 40,000 to 50,000 might be high.

“And he’s closer to it than I am,” Laszewski said.

The administration is expected to announce official enrollment numbers for October later this week.

Neither Bataille nor White House spokesman Jay Carney would confirm the numbers that The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week.

At his daily briefing, Carney said the numbers would be low because the history of similar programs showed that enrollment was always slow early on. Also, he said, because the website “has been so challenging, so problematic, in that first month means that the enrollment numbers will be even lower than expected. I can guarantee you that the number that’s released will be lower than we had hoped and anticipated because of the problems with the website."

Anita Kumar contributed to this article.

Email: tpugh@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @TonyPughDC

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