Raving Fans for Obamacare Is Goal of Program’s New CEO

Kevin Counihan, the new chief executive officer of healthcare.gov, expects Obamacare will become so user-friendly that “raving fans” will emerge for the U.S. health insurance enrollment program.

Americans buying coverage for 2015 using healthcare.gov should expect an easier experience than during its troubled first year, Counihan said yesterday in his first interview since starting the job Sept. 8. While shopping will remain imperfect, “it’s night and day from last year,” he said.

Enrollment for 2015 health plans sold under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act begins Nov. 15. Obama administration officials are trying to avoid a repeat of last October, when the enrollment website collapsed on its first day and signing up was all but impossible until the completion of a two-month repair effort. The faulty start damaged President Barack Obama’s credibility, forced a “tech surge” of private experts to fix the website, sparked congressional probes and led to the shake-up of the program’s management.

“It’s a real priority for us to create raving fans,” Counihan said. “We want our service experience to be highly satisfying. We think the best way we can attract new enrollment is by satisfying the customers we already have.”

As an example of upgrades this year, people will be able to “window shop” for plans beginning about a week before enrollment opens, Counihan said. Customers new to the system will enjoy a shorter and simpler registration process.

No Comparison Shopping

On the other hand, customers still won’t be able to easily compare doctors, hospitals and drugs covered by different plans using the federal website, he said. They’ll have to continue to call insurers or visit their corporate sites to check coverage, steps that slow enrollment.

Republicans say Americans are likely to remain frustrated with healthcare.gov. Were it a private company, “shareholders would be suing,” said Darrell Issa, a California Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has investigated the site’s development.

“But in this administration, there’s no high-level accountability and the focus remains fixated on signing up as many Americans as possible regardless of the cost, the security risks, or the impact on the quality of health care for all Americans,” he said in an e-mail from a spokeswoman last week.

Counihan, who formerly led Connecticut’s state-run health insurance marketplace, Access Health CT, is part of a management makeover for the $2.1 billion federal system directed by President Barack Obama’s new health secretary, Sylvia Mathews Burwell.

New Managers

Along with Counihan, Burwell hired Andy Slavitt, the former UnitedHealth Group Inc. executive who led last year’s repair effort, as principal deputy administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees healthcare.gov. Burwell brought on Leslie Dach, a former spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and a close friend, to handle media and other public communications.

An executive with Accenture Plc, Tim Hughey, serves as “chief technology officer” for healthcare.gov, reporting to Counihan. Accenture was hired in January to replace CGI Group Inc. as the main contractor for the enrollment site.

Burwell declined to offer assurances that development of the site is on schedule in a briefing with reporters last week. Counihan, though, was more optimistic. About 25 major insurers have been testing the site’s performance since last week and have been pleased, he said. Full testing with all insurers will begin Oct. 7, he said.

Testing Flaws

Healthcare.gov underwent only limited testing last year before it opened on Oct. 1, which contributed to its failure, U.S. officials have said. Spokesmen for UnitedHealth, WellPoint Inc. and Aetna Inc., the three largest for-profit insurers, weren’t able to immediately comment on healthcare.gov’s testing.

“Things are tracking as we would want them to track,” Counihan said. “Right now I would say we are doing well. I think consumers are going to be pleased, and we will be off and running.”

Counihan said he reviews the site’s performance with staff members and contractors twice a day on weekdays and once on weekends, and meets with Burwell multiple times a week.

“Clearly people want to kick the tires, test and verify,” he said.

About 7.3 million people had paid and were enrolled in health plans sold through the Obamacare insurance exchanges as of Aug. 15, the administration said. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 13 million will have coverage after the second year of the program.

Counihan said he had no in-house enrollment target.

“I really don’t know what success is,” he said. “The focus is very much on keeping who we have and keeping them happy.”

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