One of the two companies in Maine that are selling health insurance in the federal marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act is asking the Obama administration for permission to let consumers bypass the government’s snarled website and enroll directly on the company’s site.
Maine Community Health Options is still awaiting a response from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said company president Kevin Lewis. If the request is approved, he said, consumers interested in enrolling in one of the company’s plans will be able to sidestep healthcare.gov, which has been plagued by an array of technical problems.
“It will be a really helpful way to get people to enroll,” Lewis said Wednesday.
The other insurer selling plans through the marketplace in Maine, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The much-maligned federal website has suffered from numerous glitches since it was launched Oct. 1, the day when individuals could start signing up for subsidized benefits that begin in 2014.
The move by Maine Community Health Options comes on the same day as the Obama administration announced that it will give Americans who buy insurance through the online exchanges an extra six weeks to obtain coverage before they incur a penalty, the Washington Post reported.
The announcement means that those who buy coverage through the exchange will have until March 31 to sign up for a plan, according to an official with the Department of Health and Human Services. The original deadline for enrollment was Feb. 15 under the first year of the Affordable Care Act.
Administration officials said that the rejiggered deadline is unrelated to the many technical problems that have emerged with the HealthCare.gov website in its first three weeks. Instead, they said, it is designed to clear up a timing confusion about the 2010 law, which for the first time requires most Americans to buy health coverage or face a penalty, the Washington Post reported.
Under the law, health plans available through the new federal or state marketplaces will start Jan. 1, but the open-enrollment period runs through the end of March. The law also says that people will be fined only if they do not have coverage for three months in a row. The question has been this: Do people need to be covered by March 31, or merely to have signed up by then, given that insurance policies have a brief lag before they take effect?
The administration made clear Wednesday night that people who buy coverage at any point during the open-enrollment period will not pay a penalty.
It is the latest sign that the health-care law remains a moving target, even after the launch of the federal insurance marketplace, which has faced myriad problems that have frustrated many people trying to sign up for coverage, the Post reported.
The exchange is where people who don’t have health insurance through their employers or other means can buy subsidized insurance. People can sign up by filling out paper applications or calling a toll-free number, but the healthcare.gov website is now the only way Mainers can enroll online.
Federal officials declined to say how they would respond to Maine Community Health Options’ proposal.
Lewis would not say how many Mainers have enrolled in the company’s plans. But he said nearly 7,000 people have visited the enrollment page on the company’s website, spending an average of 12 to 14 minutes there, indicating strong interest in signing up for benefits.
Anthem spokesman Christopher Dugan has also said that interest is high, with the Anthem website receiving “unprecedented call volumes and Web traffic.”
The Obama administration acknowledged Wednesday that its website didn’t get enough testing before going live. It said technicians were deep into the job of fixing major computer snags, but provided no timetable, The Associated Press reported.
Democratic unhappiness with the situation began growing louder — including one call for President Obama to “man up” and fire someone — as the president’s allies began to fret about the political fallout. Democrats had hoped to run for re-election touting the benefits of the health care law for millions of uninsured Americans, but the computer problems are keeping many people from signing up, The Associated Press reported.
Republican sniping continued unabated, with House Speaker John Boehner declaring, “We’ve got the whole threat of Obamacare continuing to hang over our economy like a wet blanket.”
Obama himself, though strongly defending the health care overhaul, has been increasingly willing to acknowledge extensive problems with the sign-up through online markets. Amid all that, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday provided its most specific accounting yet of the troubles with healthcare.gov — an issue that is also about to get a lengthy, even-less-forgiving airing on Capitol Hill, according to The Associated Press.
The first of several hearings is set for Thursday in the Republican-led House, with lawmakers ready to pounce on the contractors who built the enrollment system.
Acknowledging what’s been obvious to many outside experts, the administration said Wednesday that the system didn’t get enough testing, especially at a high user volume. It blamed a compressed time frame for meeting the Oct. 1 deadline to open the insurance markets. Basic “alpha and user testing” are now completed, but that’s supposed to happen before a launch, not after.
The Health and Human Services explanation identified some bugs that have gotten little outside attention. For example, technical problems have surfaced that are making it hard for people to complete the application and plan-shopping functions. That’s a big concern because those stages are further along in the sign-up process than the initial registration, where many consumers have been getting tripped up. The problems are being analyzed and fixes are planned, the department said.
Other problems included unexpectedly high consumer interest that overwhelmed the system in its initial days, the lack of a way for consumers to browse plan options without first having to set up a user account, and consumers having difficulties trying to create user accounts, including drop-down menus that didn’t work.
The administration has refused to release national enrollment numbers before mid-November, a decision that is also prompting criticism. Some groups are using the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to obtain figures more quickly, and members of Congress are also pressing for an earlier release.
Despite the presidential attention and sense of urgency, it’s unclear how long it will take for the site to be fixed.
Lewis, of Maine Community Health, said it makes sense to give people other online options, especially considering healthcare.gov’s problems.
Consumers can now go through part of the enrollment process on the company’s website, but to get federal subsidies, they are redirected to healthcare.gov, where few people are able to complete the sign-ups.
“That’s where we lose them,” Lewis said. “There are some people threading the needle, but not many.”
People who earn 100 percent to 400 percent of the federal poverty level — for example, a family of four earning up to about $90,000 per year — qualify for subsidies to help pay insurance premiums.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said in a prepared statement that she supports efforts to smooth over problems in signing up for benefits.
“If there are other ways to make it easy for consumers to sign up, federal officials should definitely consider them. But the bottom line is we need to get healthcare.gov fixed, so individuals and small businesses can quickly and easily see their options,” she said.
“Any work-around is going to be helpful,” said Wendy Wolf, president and CEO of the Maine Health Access Foundation, a nonprofit group that’s helping to publicize the Affordable Care Act. But no matter what options are developed, Wolf said, the central issue is that healthcare.gov must be fixed soon.