Obamacare Web Users Invited by U.S. to Try Signup Again

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
The Obama administration in the past month has been lowering expectations for enrollment because of website outages, garbled data and other flaws plaguing the government- run marketplaces.

About 275,000 people who tried and failed to sign up for Obamacare health plans are being asked by the U.S. government to return to the website as the software flaws that initially shut them out are being corrected.

People are being contacted this week in a “series of e-mails in waves” to avoid too many getting on the website at the same time, Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, told reporters today on a conference call. Additional people who weren’t able to complete applications on the insurance exchange will be solicited later.

“We want to make sure we are inviting individuals to come back into the system and that their experience will be a positive one,” Bataille said.

Initial reports show that fewer than 100,000 people have signed up for health plans in the government exchanges that greeted customers on Oct. 1 with error messages, slow load times and garbled data. The Obama administration has since shaken up management of the website and promised to get the exchanges fully functioning by the end of this month.

“I can’t imagine the president would want to suffer another black eye,” said Dan Schuyler, a consultant at Salt Lake City-based Leavitt Partners, who has advised state exchanges created by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Bully Pulpit

High participation is critical to the success of the 2010 health law and its promise of making medical coverage an affordable possibility for at least 25 million uninsured people. While there was an early U.S. goal of about 800,000 sign-ups nationally for the first two months, officials have recently said they anticipate lower initial enrollment that will increase over time.

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The Department of Health and Human Services is set to report data this week for the federal insurance marketplace serving 36 states and for the 14 state-run exchanges.

About 49,100 people have enrolled at 12 state sites, consultant Avalere Health said yesterday in a study based on news reports. About 40,000 to 50,000 more have signed up through the federal exchange, the Wall Street Journal reported. Website flaws and the slow start may hurt the overhaul’s long-term prospects, said Avalere Chief Executive Officer Dan Mendelson.

“They need to have a smooth path to enrollment before they go out and aggressively advertise or use the bully pulpit to get people to sign up,” Mendelson said in a telephone interview.

Lowering Expectations

Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. health secretary, has apologized before two separate congressional committees for the botched rollout and said at least “a couple of hundred functional fixes” are being made. More hearings on the rollout are set to start tomorrow in the U.S. House.

The Congressional Budget Office projected 7 million people would enroll using the exchanges through 2014. Based on the enrollment so far, about 60,000 people a day would have to sign up to “get anywhere close” to that number, Schuyler said.

“Right now is when you’re going to see folks transitioning from window-shopping to actual purchasing,” Schuyler said by telephone. “The question is, have they resolved all the issues that they need to in order to sustain that type of enrollment?”

Massachusetts Model

New York state today said about 24,000 people have either selected or paid for private insurance plans through the state-run exchange since Oct. 1. An additional 197,000 have completed applying for coverage but have yet to choose an insurer, according to a statement from the state Department of Health.

Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for Sebelius’s agency, wouldn’t disclose any official data from the federal government. She compared the enrollment situation with the debut of the Massachusetts health insurance expansion in 2006, a model for the federal law, which saw only 123 people enroll in its first month.

“We have always anticipated that initial enrollment numbers would be low and increase over time,” she said in an e-mail.

Americans have until Dec. 15 to enroll in coverage that starts Jan. 1. Those who don’t find health insurance by March 31 may have to pay a fine of as much as 1 percent of their income.

Security Risks

“Whether it’s higher costs, fewer choices or simply website glitches, it’s becoming more clear with each passing day that this law isn’t ready for prime time and should be delayed,” Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said in a statement.

While enrollment is expected to be a key target for Republicans at a hearing tomorrow, they have signaled they’ll also raise questions about the insurance exchange site’s risks to customer privacy. The federal website opened for business without a full security test, a decision made by Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Agency officials including Henry Chao, the deputy chief information officer, recommended Tavenner give the exchange the go ahead without a full test, according to a Sept. 27 memo released by a congressional committee investigating the rollout.

A Sept. 3 memo from Chao’s boss, chief information officer Tony Trenkle, outlined several security risks and said it was possible “security controls are ineffective.” Chao told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee he wasn’t aware of the memo when he recommended Tavenner approve the opening of the site, according to partial transcripts of the panel’s private interview with Chao. He is scheduled to testify tomorrow.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Wayne in Washington at awayne3@bloomberg.net; Alex Nussbaum in New York at anussbaum1@bloomberg.net

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

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