WASHINGTON — A day before the Obama administration’s self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline for fixing HealthCare.gov, its technology team is scrambling to build a new part of the website as a workaround that would enable more people to buy health insurance without relying directly on the site.
The new mechanism would permit people who are eligible for financial help from the government to enroll for coverage without calculating an exact subsidy amount, which has been a major stumbling block, according to government and insurance industry officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be frank. It would allow call centers, and eventually insurance companies and brokers, to help people enroll based on estimates of what their federal subsidies would be.
But insurers are uncomfortable with the add-on because they do not want to shoulder the financial liability for customers signing up for plans with a rough estimate of their final premiums, rather than a precise figure verified through the site.
The workaround, aimed at diverting consumers from the website, is the latest indication that significant uncertainty remains about how the government will handle the large number of people who are likely to want to sign up for health plans soon.
Administration officials say they are confident that they are on track to fulfill their pledge that the “vast majority of users” will be able to use the website by Saturday.
But the administration will not be able to meet another internal target by then, said a person involved in the project who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitive nature. The goal was for tens of thousands of users to be able to register for an account and then log in on an hourly basis.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that between now and Saturday, technical workers will be trying to fix the site’s hardware so that 50,000 people can use it simultaneously, as the White House has promised.
She said the administration will delay its online insurance marketplace for small businesses for one year because it must “prioritize” the consumer experience over other aspects of the system as it repairs the site. Online enrollment under the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP), which already had been delayed from its Oct. 1 start date, will now be postponed until November 2014.
“We are still on track to make sure by the end of the month the vast majority of users will be able to go through the site smoothly,” she said, cautioning that more changes will be needed to ensure that the system is able to accommodate 50,000 users at once. “We have a lot of work left to do.”
Small businesses will still have the option to purchase SHOP plans through a broker or agent, who will help the employer file a paper application. The federal government expects to process those filings for eligibility within three to five days, according to a document circulated to business groups.
Even as the administration prepared for a new wave of customers to log onto the website next week, it cautioned its allies and reporters that there could be hiccups.
An administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely, wrote in an email Wednesday that on Monday, the White House asked allies – including Enroll America, the Service Employees International Union and Planned Parenthood – not to encourage large numbers of people to use HealthCare.gov in the first week of December so the administration can see how many people are visiting on their own.
Bataille told reporters that the administration plans to install a new function “in the next few days” to address times when demand exceeds the site’s capacity, such as the peak time of 2 p.m. Under this system, visitors will receive an email telling them when to return to the site.
“We aren’t sure what traffic will be on Dec 1, 2 – but think high volume is quite possible and don’t want users to be frustrated by more waits,” the administration official wrote, adding that consumers will have an easier time accessing the site during mornings, evenings and weekends.
Meanwhile, at a CMS command center in Columbia, Md., and at IT contractors’ offices in Northern Virginia, work to improve the site is sometimes producing results. In one hopeful sign, the number of consumers who were able to enroll in a health plan reached a record Tuesday of about 10,000, said an official familiar with the project.