WASHINGTON – The Obama administration official responsible for overseeing the development of the health insurance marketplace under the newly implemented healthcare reform law offered a public apology Tuesday for the structure’s multiple failings but insisted the system will ultimately have a positive impact on consumers.
“Unfortunately, the experience on HealthCare.gov has been frustrating for many Americans,” Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told members of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Some have had trouble creating accounts and logging in to the site while others have received confusing error messages or had to wait for slow page loads or forms that failed to respond in a timely fashion.”
The initial consumer experience “has not lived up to the expectations of the American people and is not acceptable,” Tavenner said. “We are committed to fixing these problems as soon as possible.”
Those fixes should arrive by the end of November, she said. To this point, the system has received about 700,000 health insurance applications – half utilizing the marketplace and the remainder coming from the 14 states that opted to run their own enlistment operations. It will be several more weeks, Tavenner said, before her office is able to determine how many people actually obtained insurance, noting, however, that “we expect the initial number to be small.”
Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are recommending a one-year delay in implementation of tax penalties for those who fail to obtain health insurance by the deadline. The White House thus far remains opposed to that move.
HealthCare.gov was developed as part of the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, to provide residents of 36 states an opportunity to contrast and compare various health insurance options and select the one that best fits their needs. Under the $1.4 trillion healthcare reform initiative, everyone must hold insurance by March 31.
Tavenner, who has found herself under fire as a result of the rocky opening, represents the first administration official to appear before Congress to discuss the system’s ongoing problems. She maintained that the website intended to provide access to the marketplace is “fixable.” The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has contracted with Quality Software Services Inc. to serve as general manager of the effort to fix the website. And last week President Obama chose Jeffrey Zients, his soon-to-be chief economic adviser, to provide recommendations on how to fix the issues before assuming his other responsibilities.
“The Affordable Care Act has already provided new benefits and protections to Americans with health insurance, and we are committed to improving the experience for consumers using HealthCare.gov so that Americans can easily access the quality, affordable health coverage they need,” Tavenner said. “By enlisting additional technical help, aggressively monitoring errors, testing to prevent new issues from cropping up and regularly deploying fixes to the site, we are working to ensure consumers’ interaction with HealthCare.gov is a positive one and that the Affordable Care Act fully delivers on its promise.”
Tavenner attributed the problems to private contractors who “have not met expectations.” The initial wave of consumer interest “stressed the account service, resulting in many consumers experiencing difficulty signing up, while those who were able to sign up sometimes had problems logging in.”
Healthcare.gov was designed by CGI Group Inc. and UnitedHealth Group Inc. Last week representatives of those two firms appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee and told lawmakers that the Department of Health and Human Services was advised to conduct tests on the site months before they finally got around to it. Earlier testing could have uncovered the glitches that have plagued the system.
Committee Republicans immediately dismissed Tavenner’s rationale. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the committee chairman, asserted that the three years the administration used to get the system up and running should have afforded more than enough time to work out any issues.
“And, had the administration provided more forthcoming answers and shared, in a transparent manner, the reality of the challenges it was encountering in the implementation process, I suspect many of these glitches could have been avoided,” Camp said. “While a website can eventually be fixed, the widespread problems with Obamacare cannot. Almost daily, we hear of reports of Obamacare increasing costs, harming job creation and forcing Americans off their current plan. These problems cannot be fixed through a ‘tech surge,’ and they are not just a glitch in someone’s healthcare coverage or job.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said consumers are concerned that the ongoing problems will block them from enrolling in time to satisfy the dictates of the law.
“My constituents are frightened,” he said. “They are being forced out of healthcare plans they like. The clock is ticking. The federal website is broken. Their healthcare isn’t a glitch.”
Tavenner reminded Brady that “there are more methods than just the website” to obtain the required coverage. Consumers, she said, can contact telephone call centers to guide them through. The system is working, she assured at one point, “it’s just not working as smoothly or as consistently as we want.”
“Just a few weeks into a six-month open enrollment period, while some consumers have had to wait too long to access the Marketplace via HealthCare.gov, the Marketplace is working for others and consumers are also utilizing the call center, paper applications and in-person assistance to apply for coverage,” she said.
Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the committee’s ranking member, acknowledged that the marketplace website “must be fixed and it is being fixed” but he blamed some of the acknowledged problems on the attempts of recalcitrant Republicans to “derail” the entire system rather than work with Democrats to correct inadequacies.
“Democrats want to make the Affordable Care Act work,” Levin said. “Congressional Republicans don’t.”
“The reality is that the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans are failing to work on with Democrats, is working quite effectively in states running the marketplaces,” Levin added. “In Kentucky, more than 26,000 people have enrolled for coverage. In New York, more 37,000 have signed up. And in Washington State, more than 35,000 people had enrolled as of a week ago. The irony is that Republicans have erected hurdles to states throughout the nation taking responsibility for implementing the law.”