With the launch of the new health insurance exchanges — the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act — just a day away, a nationwide push continued over the weekend to test and patch the technology behind the online sites.
Officials working on the sites have acknowledged that information technology (IT) failures will prevent many of them from functioning fully for weeks, and perhaps longer.
That will slow the government’s drive to enroll millions of uninsured Americans under President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform law starting Tuesday.
Florida declined to create its own health exchange, so it will be run in the state by the federal government.
From a political standpoint, a successful opening day will shape perceptions of Obama’s signature policy initiative. But the system’s functioning is, to a large extent, beyond the control of politicians and policy experts, and instead rests with the battalions of computer-coders working for IT subcontractors.
Six months ago, those involved in setting up the exchanges were more hopeful that everything would be ready on time, said Cristine Vogel, an associate director at Navigant Consulting.
“I don’t think there were enough hours in the day, or enough people with the skills,” she said. “When we look back, I think we’ll see that we missed an opportunity to share technology.”
Opponents of the law known as Obamacare say the computer problems bolster their view that the 2010 law is a “train wreck” and should be delayed or repealed.
The Obama administration insists the exchanges will be open for business Tuesday even if some uninsured Americans might not be able to buy coverage right away. More importantly, they say, the new health plans will begin to provide health coverage on Jan. 1, as planned.
“So long as the website is accessible and the plans and the plan information are displayed properly so a consumer can shop for coverage and compare the plans, they will claim victory,” said Chris Condeluci, an employee benefits attorney at Venable LLP and a former staffer with the Senate Finance Committee who helped draft the Affordable Care Act.
Last week, the Obama administration said its Spanish-language website would not be ready in time, and that it would be weeks before small businesses and their employees could sign up online for coverage on exchanges operated by the federal government.
The exchanges in Colorado and the District of Columbia, meanwhile, cannot calculate the amount of federal subsidies that customers might qualify for.
In New York, the exchange is not able to transfer data to some insurers instantaneously, as planned, one carrier told Reuters. Instead, the data will be sent in batches once a day or so. The glitch will not affect customers, but it raises questions that New York might have other IT problems.
Oregon had sufficient qualms about its online insurance marketplace that no one can enroll unless they use a trained, certified agent or other “community partner.”
Last week, Oregon also had trouble correctly displaying information about insurance plans on a test site. The problem could mislead customers about deductibles, prices and other details if it occurs on the live site Tuesday.
Ohio Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, who opposes the healthcare law, said in a radio interview last week that her state’s online exchange, which like Florida’s is being run by the federal government, could crash on its first day.