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Tag: Healthcare.gov

Very Big Data

The field of analytics has fallen into a few big holes lately that represent both its promise and its peril.  These holes pertain to privacy, policy, and predictions.

Policy.  2.2/7. The biggest analytics project in recent history is the $6 billion federal investment in the health exchanges.  The goals of the health exchanges are to enroll people in the health insurance plans of their choice, determine insurance subsidies for individuals, and inform insurance companies so that they could issue policies and bills.

The project touches on all the requisites of analytics including big data collection, multiple sources, integration, embedded algorithms, real time reporting, and state of the art software and hardware.  As everyone knows, the implementation was a terrible failure.

The CBO’s conservative estimate was that 7 million individuals would enroll in the exchanges.  Only 2.2 million did so by the end of 2013.  (This does not include Medicaid enrollment which had its own projections.)  The big federal vendor, CGI, is being blamed for the mess.

Note that CGI was also the vendor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which had the worst performance of all states in meeting enrollment numbers despite its long head start as the Romney reform state and its groundbreaking exchange called the Connector. New analytics vendors, including Accenture and Optum, have been brought in for the rescue.

Was it really a result of bad software, hardware, and coding?   Was it  that the design to enroll and determine subsidies had “complexity built-in” because of the legislation that cobbled together existing cumbersome systems, e.g. private health insurance systems?  Was it because of the incessant politics of repeal that distracted policy implementation?  Yes, all of the above.

The big “hole”, in my view, was the lack of communications between the policy makers (the business) and the technology people.  The technologists complained that the business could not make decisions and provide clear guidance.  The business expected the technology companies to know all about the complicated analytics and get the job done, on time.

This ensuing rift where each group did not know how to talk with the other is recognized as a critical failure point.  In fact, those who are stepping into the rescue role have emphasized that there will be management status checks daily “at 9 AM and 5 PM” to bring people together, know the plan, manage the project, stay focused, and solve problems.

Walking around the hole will require a better understanding as to why the business and the technology folks do not communicate well and to recognize that soft people skills can avert hard technical catastrophes.

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Checking the ACA’s Vital Signs

Despite pervasive challenges associated with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including the botched launch of HealthCare.gov and the concurrent wave of plan cancellations, the administration remains optimistic about the ACA’s fate.

However, critics of the ACA have seized upon these recent mishaps, particularly President Obama’s pledge that “if you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan,” as evidence of the inevitable demise of the ACA.

In response to this political firestorm, the Obama administration decided to allow insurers to renew plans not complying with ACA regulations, subject to the approval of state health insurance commissioners.

Under the policy announced last November, plans failing to meet ACA standards could be renewed for one year starting as late as Oct. 1, 2014 (and hence could be continued until Oct. 1, 2015).

The extension announced last week allows individuals to keep such plans until Oct. 1, 2017.

Allowing people to keep plans out of compliance with the ACA could deprive the newly-created marketplaces, where lower- to middle-class families can receive subsidies from the government to purchase private individual coverage, of enrollees, particularly the young and healthy enrollees they need to make premiums affordable.

According to ACA critics, meager enrollment of the young and healthy in the marketplaces would lead to a death spiral, a self-reinforcing cycle of premium increases and enrollment declines that could spell doom for the system. Recent data released by the Department of Health and Human Services suggests that enrollment, particularly among young adults, has been lackluster, falling short of Obama administration targets.

Is a death spiral looming?  Our analysis suggests not.

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Washington Post Reports Thousands Waiting On Healthcare.gov Appeals

More bad news on Healthcare.gov. This from Sunday’s WaPo:

“Tens of thousands of people who discovered that HealthCare.gov made mistakes as they were signing up for a health plan are confronting a new roadblock: The government cannot yet fix the errors. Roughly 22,000 Americans have filed appeals with the government to try to get mistakes corrected, according to internal government data obtained by The Washington Post. They contend that the computer system for the new federal online marketplace charged them too much for health insurance, steered them into the wrong.” insurance program or denied them coverage entirely …”

Not good.  The newspaper reports that consumers who call the 1-800 help line  “are (being) told that HealthCare.gov’s computer system is not yet allowing federal workers to go into enrollment records and change them, according to individuals inside and outside the government who are familiar with the situation.”

Go read the whole thing.

Healthcare.Gov’s Numbers at the Deadline

After the disastrous launch of Obamacare the enrollment of 1.1 million people in the 36 state exchanges run by the feds is a major accomplishment. It is likely that the enrollment in the 14 state-run exchanges will take total Obamacare’s private insurance enrollment to near 2 million for the year.

Does this mean that Obamacare is finally on track and moving toward success?

At least the front-end of HealthCare.gov is now clearly working.

I will suggest there are still some very important questions for Obamacare that need to be answered.

First, how many of these new enrollments are people whose policies have been cancelled under Obamacare?
As I have said on this blog before, I expect at least 80% of those in the existing individual health insurance market to lose their coverage by the end of 2014. Half of the market bought their coverage after March 2010 and therefore cannot continue while most of the other half of the market will not qualify under the Obama administration’s stringent grandfather rules.

What we don’t know is just how many of these people had to buy new coverage on January 1 given the widespread offers by carriers to “early renew” their coverage into late 2014. Then the President asked insurers and states to allow people to keep their coverage another year. It appears about two-thirds of the states went along with that request. Then many of the cancellations won’t occur until they renew throughout calendar year 2014.

We do know that California did not allow insurers to continue coverage for another year leading to 800,000 cancellations on January 1 and 200,000 cancellations by March. The state exchange has said that 300,000 of these are subsidy eligible and they can only get a subsidized policy on the exchange.

California will likely announce they have signed-up about 600,000 people this year. But given the cancellations that are occurring by January 1, is this a big accomplishment?

Washington State cancelled 260,000 policies and also did not allow the cancelled policies to continue past January 1. Half of these polices are subsidy eligible and can only get a subsidized policy in the state insurance exchange. Washington State might report 100,000 private plan enrollments by year-end. But if they cancelled 130,000 people who can only get a subsidized policy in their exchange, is this a big accomplishment?

The good news is that Obamacare will likely enroll almost 2 million people in 2013.

Even if we ignore that fact that many of these people were previously insured and had to replace cancelled policies (there were more than 400,000 subsidy eligible cancellations in California and Washington alone), 2 million people are only 10% of the 20 million uninsured in the U.S. who are eligible to buy coverage in the health insurance exchanges.

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Data Points: More Backroom Chaos and Low State Numbers

Shifting Millennial Attitudes on Obamacare December 2013.
Harvard Institute of Politics. Dec 4th, 2013. Poll

A few observations after 10 weeks of Obamacare implementation.

The Obama administration released the first two months enrollment figures this week. With HealthCare.gov still struggling in November, the enrollment of 137,000 people in the 36 states was expected. The main event for the federal exchanges will play out in December now that most people can navigate it

What I found notable in the report was the lack of robust enrollment in the states. In states where the exchange has been running at least adequately for many weeks now, the enrollment numbers are far from what I would have expected.

California enrolled 107,000 people in private plans in the first two months. But California has cancelled 800,000 current individual health plans effective January 1––all of whom have to buy a new plan by January 1 or become uninsured. The only place those who are subsidy eligible can get a subsidized plan is in the California exchange.

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November’s Numbers: Sorry. They’re Not Good. They’re Bad. Awful, Actually ..

The federal government announced yesterday that 137,204 people have selected a healthcare plan through the federal Exchange as of November 30, 2013. The number is an increase over the 29,794 who had done so by the end of October, a month during which the website portal for enrollment, healthcare.gov, was in disarray.

The government reports that 258,497 have now selected a plan through one of the state Exchanges, making a total of 364,682 enrolled. Asked by reporters whether the Obama administration stands by its estimate that 7 million will enroll in individual plans sold on the various Exchanges by March 31, 2013, the day necessary to do so in order to avoid a tax penalty,  Michael Hash, director of the office of health reform in the federal Health and Human Services Department, said that they were “on track, and we will reach the total that we thought.”

The pace of enrollment announced by the federal government today is inconsistent with the claim that its 7 million goal will be achieved. The claim rests on hopes of two surges, one taking place over the next 12 days before the December 23, 2013, deadline for coverage starting January 1, 2014 and a second surge taking place as we approach the end of March at which point, if coverage has not been obtained, many Americans will be hit with a tax penalty.

The magnitude of the surge required strains credulity.  A scenario in which most of  those who wanted coverage have already applied and in which the pace of enrollment stays the same or even sags for lengthy periods as we go forward would appear almost as likely. Plus, it seems unlikely that there will be major enrollment between December 23, 2013, the first deadline, and March 23, 2014, the second deadline. If someone wanted coverage, they would try to get it earlier. What does applying in the middle of February accomplish? Moreover, if, given the unpredictability of human behavior, the surge actually materialized, it might well strain the government’s computer systems.

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A Small Paper Problem: The Health Exchanges Face An Avalanche of Paper Applications

When HealthCare.gov and some state-run insurance marketplaces ran into trouble with their websites in October and November, they urged consumers to submit paper applications for coverage.

Now, it’s time to process all that paper. And with the deadline to enroll in health plans less than two weeks away, there’s growing concern that some of these applications won’t be processed in time.

The Associated Press reported last week that federal officials are now advising navigators—groups paid to assist consumers with enrollment—not to use paper applications anymore, if they can help it.

“We received guidance from the feds recommending that folks apply online as opposed to paper,” said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Insurance.

After a conference call earlier this week with federal health officials, Illinois health officials sent a memo Thursday to their roughly 1,600 navigators saying there is no way to complete marketplace enrollment through a paper application. The memo, which Claffey said was based on guidance from federal officials, said paper applications should be used only if other means aren’t available.

Federal health officials also discussed the issue during a conference call Wednesday with navigators and certified counselors in several states.

“They’ve said do not use paper applications because they won’t be able to process them anywhere near in time,” said John Foley, attorney and certified counselor for Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, who was on the call.

According to an enrollment report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 83 percent of the 1.8 million applications completed between Oct. 1-Nov. 30 were filled out online; the rest were on paper. The online figure was higher, 91 percent, in the 14 states running their own health exchanges, compared to 80 percent for Healthcare.gov, which processes enrollments for the other 36 states.  But even outside the federal exchange, paper is proving to be a problem.

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Probably Illegal and Unquestionably Stupid: Covered California’s Release of Personal Health Information.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that Covered California, the largest state’s health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, has started releasing to insurance agents throughout the state the names and contact information of tens of thousands of persons who started an application using the state’s online system but failed to complete it.

The Covered California director Peter Lee acknowledges the practice but says that the outreach program still complies with privacy laws and was reviewed by the exchange’s legal counsel. “I can see a lot of people will be comforted and relieved at getting the help they need to navigate a confusing process,” explained Lee.

I am hardly as confident as Covered California’s lawyers apparently were that this practice was legal.

The law requires that disclosures to third parties be necessary and I do not see why Covered California could not have contacted non-completers directly and ask them if they wanted help from an insurance agent rather than disclosing their identity to insurance agents.  But even if the practice could be said to be borderline legal, it is difficult to imagine a practice more likely to sabotage enrollment efforts in California — and, since California’s interpretation could be precedent for other states — elsewhere.

For every person unable to complete their application online in California and who will, with the comforting help provided by insurance agents, now want to complete it, there are likely 10 who will be turned off by the cavalier attitude towards privacy exhibited by this government agency.  Beyond a violation of ACA privacy safeguards, the action is either a sign of desperation about enrollment figures, even in a state that boasts of its success such as Peter Lee’s California, or monumental stupidity.

If California wanted to create an adverse selection death spiral, it would be difficult to be more effective than, without notice or consent,  releasing personally identifiable information to insurance agents.

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True or False? I’m Better Off Waiting

East Coast THCB reader writes:

“Ok. Here’s my situation. I’ve tried signing up for coverage at Healthcare.gov several times without success.  (I got a combination of the weird glitches and other symptoms other readers have reported. ) After the last fail, I decided to hold off on any further attempts on the theory that things are bound to get better.

Based on the news reports I’m seeing, that may or may not be happening. I’m starting to worry that if I wait too long I may get caught up in the mad rush as people scramble to beat the deadline.  Given what’s happened so far, I’m not highly confident that  Healthcare.gov will be working.

So here’s my question: am I better off waiting or should I try to push my application through the system now?”

Healthcare.gov Is Working. But Is It Working Well Enough to Withstand the Enrollment Surge?

From 27,000 enrollments in October to a reported 100,000 enrollments in November, the Affordable Care Act’s website is apparently working better and getting more people signed up.

But is it fixed well enough to handle the expected wave of at least many hundreds of thousands of people eager to get guarantee issue health insurance for the first time or replace a canceled policy by January 1?

Here are some of the press reports covering the December 1 HealthCare.gov relaunch:

  • Reuters: “A surge of visitors clogged the U.S. government’s revamped healthcare insurance shopping website on Monday, signaling that President Barack Obama’s administration has a way to go in fixing the portal that showcases his signature domestic policy.”
  • Bloomberg reporting on a navigator’s experience: “It’s still kind of glitchy. Now it just kicked me out. It went back to the front page. I’ve been here all afternoon and it’s been like that.”
  • Miami Herald: Long waits, error messages, unresponsiveness. Hallmarks of the troubled launch of the Health Insurance Marketplace at healthcare.gov continued to stymie South Florida residents and counselors trying to access the website on Monday––more than two months after the October 1 launch, and despite the government’s self-imposed deadline of Nov. 30 for the system to function smoothly for the ‘vast majority of Americans.”
  • Los Angles Times: “The Obama administration’s overhauled healthcare website got off to a bumpy relaunch Monday as a rush of consumers caused an uptick in errors and forced the administration to put thousands of shoppers on the HealthCare.gov site on hold.
  • Ezra Klein, Washington Post: “Of course, that means the site still suffers a disastrous outage rate.” And, “We have no idea whether the 200 fixes left on the list are really important ones, or really difficult ones. The repair job is likely proceeding quickly enough to protect Obamacare from the most severe threat to its launch: Democrat-backed legislation unwinding the individual mandate or other crucial portions of the law.

And then there is the backroom. The administration apparently decided that it was more important to fix the front-end of the system before the back-end was fixed. Do they think that big customer service issues come January, if the “834” back-end enrollment problems are not fixed by then, will be blamed on the insurance industry and not the administration?

  • Associated Press: “Private insurers complain that much of the enrollment information they’ve gotten on individual consumers is practically useless. It is corrupted by errors, duplication or garbles. Efforts to fix the underlying problems are underway, but the industry isn’t happy with the progress and is growing increasingly concerned.”

As I have said before, the Obama administration is likely in the midst of a four month project to properly fix and test this system. It will likely be at least late January or early February before not just HealthCare.gov but the other key information systems supporting the new law are built and repaired to just minimal standards.

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