Computer glitch delays Obamacare insurance exchange in D.C.

Tony PughMcClatchy Washington Bureau

In an unexpected setback, officials at the District of Columbia’s health insurance marketplace announced Wednesday that a computer glitch won’t allow consumers to get their federal tax credits that are key to helping them buy health coverage on Oct. 1 when the marketplace officially opens for business.

The same problem will keep residents in the nation’s capital from enrolling electronically in the Medicaid program, said D.C. marketplace spokesman Richard Soriano. Workers will instead enroll Medicaid applicants manually on Oct. 1 without delay.

But low- and middle-income people hoping to purchase private individual coverage on the marketplace will have to wait until at least Nov. 1 to see if they’re eligible for tax credits to offset the cost of newly mandated coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

By that time, the computer problem should be fixed, Soriano said.

“There is one part of the system that our testing indicated was not working right and we did not want to take any chances that it would give incorrect information” about eligibility for the tax credits, Soriano said.

The close-to-home development is a bit of an embarrassment and a bad omen for the Obama administration, which is preparing for the controversial national launch of new insurance marketplaces in all 50 states next week.

The online marketplaces, where consumers can choose from a variety of health insurance policies, are the signature technological feature of Obamacare. An estimated 7 million people nationwide are expected to enroll for coverage through marketplaces between Oct. 1 and March 31, 2014.

The D.C. marketplace is run by the local government, while the Obama administration will operate exchanges in 27 states.

The state-run Oregon marketplace announced recently that until the website is debugged, consumers won’t be able to purchase coverage by themselves on the exchange for the first few weeks. Instead, they must have assistance from certified insurance agents, or “community partners,” trained to navigate the website.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is working closely with state-run marketplaces to make sure they’re ready for the Oct. 1 launch of the open enrollment period, said HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters.

Despite the D.C. and Oregon setbacks, Peters said: “There will be a marketplace open in every state and D.C. on Oct. 1, where families can comparison shop for quality, affordable health coverage.”

By Tony Pugh
McClatchy Washington Bureau