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Tag: Health Insurance Exchanges

Why the Medicare Part D-Obamacare Comparison Is Making Less and Less Sense

With the possible exception of one phrase — “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” — defenders of Obamacare have repeatedly invoked the same warning.

Don’t be too critical of the Affordable Care Act’s new marketplaces. Medicare Part D had a rocky rollout, too.

“In terms of confusion, lack of knowledge, and misinformation, the current situation with exchanges resembles the situation that prevailed when Part D enrollment opened,” Daniel McFadden, a UC-Berkeley economist and Nobel laureate, told the Wall Street Journal‘s David Wessel earlier this month.

Part D, “at the time that it was passed was actually less popular than the Affordable Care Act,” President Obama said in an NPR interview on Oct. 1, the day the new marketplaces launched.

There are similarities between the two programs, from the political fight over their enactment to the difficulties in making the laws a reality. But the laws differ in some important ways, too, including ones that supporters haven’t fully acknowledged.

So what can we take away from Part D? Here is a quick guide to lessons from the drug plan’s rollout.

The political environment

How it’s similar: Just as Democrats fiercely resisted Republicans’ efforts to enact a Medicare drug benefit, the GOP refused to support the Democrat-led ACA.

How it differs: While Part D is seen as successful today — 90% of seniors were satisfied, according to a 2009 survey — Democrats say that their party deserves some credit.

“We lost the policy fight, and what did we do?” asked Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. “We went back to our districts and we told our seniors although we voted no, we … will work with the Bush administration to make it work,” Pascrell added.

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Will You Be Able to Keep Your Plan? The Economics Behind the Obama Administration’s Latest Problem

By now you’ve certainly seen the headlines: “Obama administration knew millions could not keep their health insurance,” or “Report: Millions will lose health plans as ObamaCare takes hold.”

This is not just the rumblings of right wing media outlets or scare tactics, it is now becoming clear that millions of individuals who used to buy their insurance in the individual market will not be able to keep their old plans. As a result of minimum standard for health insurance “quality,” between 50 and 75 percent of existing individual insurance plans will be canceled.

White House Spokesperson Jay Carney said that these cancellations will only affect “substandard policies that don’t provide minimum services.” But again, the devil here is in the undiscussed details. The “minimum services” bar for the Affordable Care Act is actually very high and as a result the new policies that replace those being canceled can be quite expensive.

For people who are in the unsubsidized portion of the exchanges, or even those who qualify for smaller subsidies, these minimum requirements are going to result in large premium increases. While many people might all believe that these individuals be buying better insurance, this is not the argument used to gain public support for the ACA.

We’ve both been vocal in our support of moving people onto the exchanges and away from employer provided coverage. One reason for that support has been that the exchanges allow a far better matching of individual preferences for health insurance and the products that people can purchase. Certainly that was our basis for our strong support of narrow network plans on the exchanges.

Beyond the size of the network, some people don’t want to pay for generous first dollar coverage. Instead, these consumers are willing to exchange lower premiums for higher deductibles or other forms of cost sharing. Others might not be interested in having coverage for every possible service, but instead might opt for a less generous set of benefits.

They will be thwarted by the ACA.

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The Opening Act

That past month of debate over the botched launch of the health care exchanges has brought the programming geeks, and their hired mouthpieces, out in the open to defend the indefensible. As painful as this has been for so many Americans, we cannot help but be amused to hear so many commentators doing their best impression of Captain Renault and expressing their shock that the federal procurement system could have produced such an outcome. Of course, most of this is a sideshow, the opening act to an even more serious drama in the making.

Let us be clear from the outset, the rollout of Healthcare.gov is an embarrassment. However, this only becomes a real problem if it dissuades enough people who were already marginal customers with respect to their purchase of health insurance on the exchanges to simply pay the penalty and avoid the hassle of staring at a computer screen, waiting on hold for hours, or refusing to try again once the geeks get this all sorted out.

While the self-appointed technology experts on both sides of the aisle have been debating the causes of the web site debacle, attention has been diverted away from the necessarily frank discussions we must have about the real potential benefits and looming costs of the exchanges.

In a valiant attempt to steer the conversation towards the benefits of the ACA, President Obama held a rose garden press event where he repeatedly claimed that the health insurance on the exchanges is good product. But as is all too often the case, the President talked about the benefits and side stepped the difficult conversation about the costs.

At least he is half right. If they can ever fix the web sites, people with pre-existing conditions who shop on the exchanges will gain access to insurance at a more affordable price. Enrollees may save thousands of dollars. But let’s not kid ourselves.

The exchanges do not reduce the cost of medical care; they only change who pays for it. And we all know who that is.

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What’s Next for Healthcare.gov?

The launch of HealthCare.gov certainly didn’t go as planned. Due to technical errors, millions of Americans were sent to the functional equivalent of a waiting room before they could enter the shopping portion of the site.

Historically, projects of such complexity and demand have encountered early problems yet still often achieve great success. While much of the commentary has focused on coding problems, the site still has the potential to spur innovation — be it public or private —  that will result in quality improvement and lower costs.

For context, the HealthCare.gov site is merely the front door to an incredibly complex technological undertaking tasked with organizing insurance plans, assessing program eligibility, facilitating consumer enrollment, managing financial services, and providing all of the associated customer support.

An estimated 19 million people visited the site through Sunday, and many did so at the same time; at peak periods, there were five times as many simultaneous visitors as had been expected. In rapid response to that surge, the HealthCare.gov team tried to restrict the number of visitors to the area of the site where they could establish accounts and begin shopping.

Naturally, this was not ideal, but it was preferable to the alternative.

When Internet entrepreneurs prepare to launch a new service, they tend to anticipate two scenarios. The first, and worst, is that nobody visits. The other is that too many people do.

Rise of a new platform

Drawing from my experience as CTO in President Barack Obama’s first term, we overcame initial technical challenges in popular programs such as “Cash for Clunkers” or the Post-9/11 GI Bill of Rights for veterans through an analysis of the root cause problems — and a systematic plan to address them.

I’m confident that the HealthCare.gov team will similarly fix the technology with the help of experienced technical talent – in and out of government – to work through its punch list. The site should continue to improve in the weeks ahead, building toward Dec. 15.

But the real story, likely to play out over the coming months, will be its rise as a new platform for innovation – one that will lead to the creation of new private sector services to improve our nation’s health.

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Round One of the Obamacare Exchange Hearings. Angry Republicans 6 Contractors 0.

Today’s House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing/grilling of the contractors behind Healthcare.gov brought a lot of defenses and fingerpointing, but little clarity of when the website will be fixed.

Still, here are some of the more-memorable quotes. The sources are below each.

“I will not yield to this monkey court,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said when Republican lawmakers tried to talk about online privacy fears. -Politico

“This is not about blame. It’s about accountability,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “We still don’t know the real picture, as the administration appears allergic to transparency.” – WSJ.com

“CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] had the ultimate decision to go live or not go live,” said Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, the lead federal contractor on the project. “At CGI we were not in position to make that decision. We were there to support the client. It’s not our position to tell clients whether to go live or not go live.” —  Washington Post

“Amazon and eBay don’t crash the week before Christmas,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, a Democrat. “ProFlowers doesn’t crash on Valentine’s Day.” – NBC News

“Three weeks after the Web site went live, we are still hearing reports of significant problems. These problems need to be fixed, and they need to be fixed fast,” said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado. -New York Times

“We understand the frustration many people have felt since healthcare.gov was launched. We have been and remain accountable for the performance of our tools and our work product,” said Andrew Slavitt, the group executive vice president for Optum/QSSI, a contractor on the project.   – ABC News

Meanwhile, HHS officials may be regretting their decision to give Healthcare.gov visitors the ability to post comments to the site. ProPublica reporters reviewed over 500 comments posted at https://www.healthcare.gov/connect/.

A sampling:

Wrongly Listed As Jailed

“Website said my wife and I were ineligible due to current incarceration. We have never been arrested in our lives, both 63!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” Fred wrote on Oct. 21.

Health Problems Made Worse

“I have a pre-existing condition …. a-fib…..and actually had an attack after getting frustrated with this confusing mess,” Bill wrote on Oct. 22. (A-fib refers to atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heartbeat.)

Daughter is Not a Daughter Anymore

“I am having difficulty with my account,” Joanna wrote on Oct. 22. “It appears that my daughter was added twice so that I now have two daughters with the same name and social security number. I am unable to delete one of them.  Also, the drop down menu that relates to what relationship someone is to another is faulty. I choose that my husband is the father of our daughter and that my daughter is a dependant [sic] to me and my husband. What it actually shows though is that my daughter is a stepdaughter to her father and that my daughter is now both my husband and I’s parent. “

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Why Calling it a “Tech Surge” May Not Be the Best Idea in History

Now that our federal government is back at work and the short term debt ceiling thing is resolved, it should be no surprise that the news cycle is now obsessed with Obamacare and its flawed implementation. Over the weekend I must have seen a dozen articles about this online and in the NY Times, and then I woke up this morning to a bunch of new things about the Healthcare.gov site underlying tech, how screwed up it is, and what / how the Health and Human Services agency is going to do to fix it.

The punch line – a tech surge.

To ensure that we make swift progress, and that the consumer experience continues to improve, our team has called in additional help to solve some of the more complex technical issues we are encountering.

Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov.  We’re also putting in place tools and processes to aggressively monitor and identify parts of HealthCare.gov where individuals are encountering errors or having difficulty using the site, so we can prioritize and fix them.  We are also defining new test processes to prevent new issues from cropping up as we improve the overall service and deploying fixes to the site during off-peak hours on a regular basis.

From my perspective, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Many years ago I read Fredrick Brooks iconic book on software engineering – The Mythical Man-Month. One of his key messages is that adding additional software engineers to an already late project will just delay things more. I like to take a different approach – if a project is late, take people off the project, shrink the scope, and ship it faster.

I think rather than a tech surge, we should have a “tech retreat and reset.” There are four easy steps.

  • 1. Shut down everything including taking all the existing sites offline.
  • 2. Set a new launch date of July 14, 2014.
  • 3. Fire all of the contractors.
  • 4. Hire Harper Reed as CTO of Healthcare.gov, give him the ball and 100% of the budget, and let him run with it.

If Harper isn’t available, ask him for three names of people he’d put in charge of this. But put one person – a CTO – in charge. And let them hire a team – using all the budget for individual hires, not government contractors or consulting firms.

Hopefully the government owns all the software even though Healthcare.gov apparently violates open source licenses. Given that, the new CTO and his team can quickly triage what is useful and what isn’t. By taking the whole thing offline for nine months, you aren’t in the hell of trying to fix something while it’s completely broken. It’s still a fire drill, but you are no longer inside the building that is burning to the ground.

It’s 2013. We know a lot more about building complex software than we did in 1980. So we should stop using approaches from the 1980s, admit failure when it happens, and hit reset. Doing a “tech surge” will only end in more tears.

Brad Feld is the managing director at the Foundry Group. This post originally appeared at his site, FeldThoughts.

Healthcare.com Would Have Worked Better

Is this any way to build a railroad?

By now you’ve heard that the “Obamacare exchanges” did not launch on October 1 so much as stumble out into public view, barely able to crawl.

Three weeks later, the federal version — “healthcare.gov,” which is actually the same exchange re-deployed 36 times in 36 states — is still barely able to crawl. By contrast, most of the 15 exchanges operated by individual states and the District of Columbia are working more or less fine, for varying reasons we will explore in a moment.

Why the epic fail for healthcare.gov, estimated to have generated a health insurance enrollment rate of less than one-half of one percent among nearly 10 million visitors? Information technologists have identified lunk-headed flaws in its overall design, while pointing to the way the Federal government rolled it out, all at once, all across the nation — as if it were a campaign commercial and not one of the most complex undertakings in the history of e-commerce.

Which would be for good reason: the federal exchange is a campaign commercial, one the Administration had no choice but to broadcast after its opponents went to war on every front against implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

The architects of the ACA expected that states would build their own exchanges. The federal exchange was supposed to be a failsafe — a fallback for a few straggler states unable to build their own in time for the October 1 launch. For the rest, healthcare.gov was supposed to do two things: point people to their state’s exchange; and handle the very complicated task of querying tax and other federal databases to verify people’s eligibility.

Instead, it found itself saddled with the entire e-commerce job for 36 refusenik states.

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Should the Obamacare Exchanges Be Shut Down?

My sense is that the biggest reason Obamacare is now in trouble is because of the top-secret way in which the administration has handled the rollout. If they had developed the computer system in a transparent way, the marketplace would have told them long ago this would not work.

No one outside the inner circle at the Department of Health and Human Services has any idea what’s really going on behind the Wizard’s curtain. Hasn’t for months. Doesn’t now.

So any technical advice any of us could give would be, to say the least, uninformed.

If I were on the inside, and it were up to me, the first thing I would do is bring in a group of heavyweight information technology experts to tell me just what was really going on. The administration cannot trust the people who have been working on this because they told them to launch this mess on October 1 and almost three weeks in there has been no improvement on the website or in the backroom––they no longer have credibility.

I would ask those experts to very quickly answer three questions:

  1. Can this thing be fixed on the fly––as the administration appears to be trying to do?
  2. If it can’t be fixed on the fly––and three weeks into this that sure looks doubtful––then can it be taken down for one or two months with a high degree of confidence it can be brought back up in time to enroll people sooner rather than later?
  3. If the first two options are not possible, just how long will the computer system have to be shutdown before Obamacare can be launched in a way that there can be confidence it will work smoothly?

Then I would take their advice.

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State Surveillance Endangers the Affordable Care Act: A Case Study

… and a call to action. This case study is based on my meeting with the Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA) in my home state. CHIA is an all payers claims database, a massive collection of diagnoses, locations, dates and prices for all of your health services across all of your providers and insurers. Whether it’s claims or health records, almost every state and many private clearing houses are setting up to monitor you.

Your information can be used by business to manipulate prices for maximum profit, or by you to inform your choice of health insurance plans and health care providers.

Unfortunately, business can get your information but you can’t. This reflects an industry strategy to obstruct the market-based features of the Affordable Care Act. I hope you will take this case study, edit it, and file it with the Attorney General and Governor in your state to ask for your data as a consumer protection issue. That’s what I’m about to do.

My state is #1! Go Massachusetts! My state is #1 in health care costs. It’s also #1 in implementing a health insurance exchange (Romneycare 2006) and a leader in state surveillance with the 2012 cost containment law known as Chapter 224. Chapter 224 mandates various state surveillance mechanisms including a health information exchange that monitors encounters and an all payer claims database called “the center”.

The cost containment law also includes some consumer protections. Line 1909 states:

“To the maximum extent feasible, the center shall also make data available to health care consumers, on a timely basis and in an easily readable and understandable format, data on health care services they have personally received.”

Although the state surveillance is in place, and the price fixing that keeps us #1 is ongoing, the consumer protection part of the law is not implemented. So, I took the opportunity to meet with the executive director of CHIA and their chief legal counsel and get the scoop on why the state is not following the law. To paraphrase their explanation: “It’s too hard.”

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A Pragmatic Fix for Healthcare.gov & the HIXs

By now even those of us who originally thought that we were seeing minor teething troubles are no longer deluding ourselves. Healthcare.gov, the federal health insurance exchanges (HIXs), and many of the state HIXs are in deep trouble.

One summary of many articles about this is up at ProPublica. But now that the House Republicans have stopped trying to destroy the country and themselves, attention will turn quickly to this problem, and–much worse–beyond the politics, there is now only eight or so weeks to get ready for actual enrollments for Jan 1, once you take out Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday. Getting ten or twenty million new customers on board, not to mention the small businesses who want to move from their current insurance onto the exchanges, seems like an impossible task.

But, if we can muster the will, there may be a solution. (And yes, I want it to work, faut de mieux). Quietly last summer two private online insurance brokers, eHealth which runs the eHealthInsurance.com site, and GetInsured, struck deals with HHS which allowed them to enroll individuals in plans that qualify for the mandate under the ACA, and more importantly, connect with the “Health Exchange Data Hub” that figures out whether the enrollee qualifies for a subsidy (theoretically by connecting to the IRS).

That part of the transaction, though, could be done by attestation and dealt with later. In other words, someone buying health insurance could state what their income will be in 2014 (or was in 2013) and if it ends up varying dramatically on their 1040 then in 2015 they will pay or receive the difference. Essentially this is something all Americans recognize–the IRS asks you for more or gives you a tax refund well after the fact, and H&R Block and their competitors make a business of giving you the refund right away (and of course charge you for the privilege).

That is important because what seems to be crippling the HIXs right now is not the back end, it’s the front end. (Go to this Reddit thread for lots more deeply technical conversation about that). Showing people options, comparing plans, setting up accounts–that’s all standard web stuff and most of the HIXs can’t do it. Those private brokers have both smoothly done this for years and at least the two I mentioned have built comparative tools for the new insurance plans. (Both were demoed at Health 2.0 on October 1).

So why can’t we put prominent links to eHealthInsurance.com and GetInsured on the Healthcare.gov site and move people over there? Continue reading…

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