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Tag: Healthcare.gov

In Which Your Author Does the Math

Healthcare.gov appears to be working much better, at least in enabling individuals to select plans. And some of the state exchange web sites appear to be improving their functionality too. Some have heralded these advances as providing hope that the Exchanges will be able to meet the enrollment projections on which the economics of insurance without medical underwriting in part depend. But do these claims stand up to the cold light of mathematics?  Not very well.

Here’s the headline:

A close look at the numbers shows that the pace of enrollments from here to the close of open enrollment needed to meet projections is high in every state, even those touted as successful, and almost impossibly high in many.  Given the incredibly slow start in most jurisdictions, it will not just take a little pickup over the next few months to achieve the projected and needed number of persons in the Exchanges. It will take a miraculous last minute stampede. Since miracles seldom occur,  the result may be two different stories of the Affordable Care Act: a few states in which the Exchanges proved from the start to be a somewhat stable mechanism for providing health insurance without medical underwriting but a significant number of other states in which the results for at least the first year represent a large failure.

Recent News

News appears to be breaking out
that the federal exchanges enrolled about 100,000 in November.  This is being heralded as somewhat of a success compared to the 26,000 who enrolled in October. And, of course, enrollment figures from healthcare.gov are difficult to assess due to the actual and feared dysfunctionality of the web site. But one way to look at this is to consider what has to happen between December 1, 2013, and March 23, 2014, the close of open enrollment to make projections. The states that are dependent on healthcare.gov need about 4.84 million enrollees by the end of that period if the nation is to meet the goal of having 7 million enrolled in the Exchanges by the close of open enrollment.  If, right now, there are about 126,000 enrollees in those states, we are just 2.5% of the way there.

The pace of enrollment on healthcare.gov will need to increase by a factor of about 20 in order to meet goal.  In absolute terms, healthcare.gov needs to be enrolling about 42,000 people per day. And while perhaps not every single one of those people need to enroll for the system to succeed, the 7 million enrollment goal isn’t just a mere wish. There are, as I and many others have noted potentially serious consequences to the stability of insurance markets if the figures fall well short, even in several states.

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Obamacare Has Failed My Family

The Obamacare debacle remains … well, a debacle.

At a time when I should have my family’s insurance coverage locked up for 2014, I learned this past week that — despite previous assurances from the government’s call center — my application for coverage has not been completed or submitted to AmeriHealth.

Let’s start at November 13, when I attempted to finally enroll via healthcare.gov and over the phone.

Even though I had completed all of the necessary steps to that point, the site didn’t work that day and locked my account — allowing me to do nothing more on the healthcare.gov site. I called the call center, who couldn’t even find me in the system — despite the fact I had an account, had selected an insurer and clicked enroll.

They discovered my family in the system once they figured out healthcare.gov had determined my 8-year-old son was the head of the household. The call center operator said we couldn’t do anything until he gave me permission to access the account (he was in school, so that wasn’t happening).

Once they found me and I convinced them I wouldn’t be calling my son’s school for permission, however, they couldn’t access my account because healthcare.gov was down. She advised me to call the insurer to see if they had received my application.

The insurer helpfully said that they wouldn’t even receive the application for three to six weeks after it was submitted via healthcare.gov — which, at best, put us at early December and at worst past the deadline to have insurance on January 1.

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Healthcare.Gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality

Back in the mid-1990s, I did a lot of web work for traditional media. That often meant figuring out what the client was already doing on the web, and how it was going, so I’d find the techies in the company, and ask them what they were doing, and how it was going. Then I’d tell management what I’d learned. This always struck me as a waste of my time and their money; I was like an overpaid bike messenger, moving information from one part of the firm to another. I didn’t understand the job I was doing until one meeting at a magazine company.

The thing that made this meeting unusual was that one of their programmers had been invited to attend, so management could outline their web strategy to him. After the executives thanked me for explaining what I’d learned from log files given me by their own employees just days before, the programmer leaned forward and said “You know, we have all that information downstairs, but nobody’s ever asked us for it.”

I remember thinking “Oh, finally!” I figured the executives would be relieved this information was in-house, delighted that their own people were on it, maybe even mad at me for charging an exorbitant markup on local knowledge. Then I saw the look on their faces as they considered the programmer’s offer. The look wasn’t delight, or even relief, but contempt. The situation suddenly came clear: I was getting paid to save management from the distasteful act of listening to their own employees.

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A Tale of Two IT Procurements

Recently, the President of the United States, the most powerful person on earth, the man whose finger rests on the nuclear button, struck a bold blow for . . . procurement reform?

“There are a whole range of things that we’re going to need to do once we get [the Affordable Care Act (ACA) rollout] fixed—to talk about federal procurement when it comes to IT and how that’s organized,” the president said on November 4, speaking to a group of donors and supporters.

People are clamoring for heads to roll, and the president is talking about what just could be the geekiest, most obscure topic ever to clog a federal bureaucrat’s inbox. Procurement reform? Has he gone off the deep end?

Well, not really. Among the causes of healthcare.gov’s difficulties, the federal process for purchasing goods and services could rank right up there with toxic politics, lack of funding for ACA implementation, and management goofs. Let me explain why, from personal experience.

From 2009 to 2011, I served as National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. My job was to implement the HITECH ACT, which aims to create a nationwide, interoperable, private, and secure electronic health information system. As national coordinator I had to lead a lot of federal contracts.

This is how that went.

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The Real Reason You May Not Be Able to Keep Your Doctor Under the New Healthcare Law


Here is what the President said at the American Medical Association Meeting in July, 2009––and likely lots more times:

“No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise: If you like your doctor, you will keep your doctor. Period. If you like your health care plan, your will keep your health plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what. My view is that health care reform should be guided by a simple principle: fix what’s broken and build on what works.”

We have all heard this repeated many times before in recent weeks. But with the front-page story in the Washington Post yesterday, “Health Insurers Limit Choices to Keep Costs Down,” it’s as if somebody rang a new bell this time focused on the “you will keep your doctor” part.

It’s not like we haven’t been talking about more narrow networks becoming a staple of the new health insurance exchanges.

It is as if some of this stuff is just starting to sink in.

Why the limited networks?

In the old health insurance market, insurers competed for business through price and plan design. Network size has historically been a minor factor with consumers and employer plan sponsors expecting to be able to use about any doctor or hospital, especially those with the best reputations.

But with the Affordable Care Act, health plans lost two of their historically big plan pricing variables; medical underwriting and plan design.

Under Obamacare, insurers can no longer underwrite, or exclude people, to keep the cost of their individual market health insurance plans down––a good thing.

Under Obamacare, insurers can no longer offer a wide variety of health insurance products in the individual health market––a good thing when it gets rid of the worst of the health plans out there but not such a good thing when it gets rid of the many policies people could choose and have liked and are now mad about losing. Now, all health plans have to fit into four strict boxes: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. And, these boxes can only differ by out-of-pocket costs––not benefits.

So, if a health plan can no longer vary its benefit choices, how can it distinguish itself on price?

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The Clock Is Ticking

There’s still time.  Much of the sensationalistic coverage since October has completely missed the point, argue defenders.  THCB reader Hiro Kawashima had this to say:

“What became clear is that President Obama’s most formidable enemy isn’t the Republican Party, angry insurers or antsy Congressional Democrats; it is time. The PPACA is running against the clock and what the PPACA needs most is time to work. Even before the bill was signed into law, it was clear that the true financial benefit of PPACA would not be realized for a decade. Each failure, each negative portrayal and each angry consumer shaves an additional second off the clock. The President’s proposed administrative fix will buy time for the White House to get the healthcare.gov website working and regain control of the narrative.

If none of the reasons above made any sense to you, here is an analogy from President Obama:

One way I described this to — I met with a group of senators when this issue first came up — and it’s not a perfect analogy — but we made a decision as a society that every car has to have a seatbelt or airbags.  And so you pass a regulation.  And there are some additional costs, particularly at the start of increasing the safety and protections, but we make a decision as a society that the costs are outweighed by the benefits of all the lives that are saved.  So what we’re saying now is if you’re buying a new car, you got to have a seatbelt.

Well, the problem with the grandfather clause that we put in place is it’s almost like we said to folks, you got to buy a new car, even if you can’t afford it right now.  And sooner or later, folks are going to start trading in their old cars.  But we don’t need — if their life circumstance is such where, for now at least, they want to keep the old car, even if the new car is better, we should be able to give them that option.  And that’s what we want to do.”

Better But Nowhere Near Good Enough

I can provide you with an Obamacare federal exchange rollout update from two decidedly different perspectives:

  1. The website is working much better with enrollment increasing at least three-fold over just a few weeks ago with backroom error rates considerably improved; or
  2. The enrollment, to give you a general sense of what’s happening, for a health plan that might have to sign-up 100,000 people in order to get their share of the 7 million Obama administration’s national enrollment objective, has grown from perhaps 10-15 enrollments a day a few weeks ago to 40-50 a day now. If this new higher trend continues, such a plan would sign up only another 12,000 people toward the 100,000 objective by March 31. Backroom error rates being committed by Healthcare.gov, when enrollment data are transmitted to the health plans, are still far too high to transition to high volume processing without serious customer service issues.

So, pick your perspective. Most importantly, Healthcare.gov is not ready for what could come in just two weeks when, between December 1 and December 15, everyone expects massive pressure on the federal Obamacare enrollment and administration site so people can get coverage by January 1.

My independent survey of health plans also matches comments by CMS Deputy Chief Information Officer Henry Chao today at a House hearing that 30% to 40% of the IT systems needed to support Obamacare still must be built. He also said that, “We [CMS] still need to build the payments systems to make the [subsidy] payments [to the health plans].”

I have been hearing reports from plans that CMS has said that the enrollee subsidy information was going to be mailed to the plans but I frankly didn’t believe it. Chao went on to say that other backroom functions, including accounting systems, were not complete.

That would be like a bank starting business and attracting customers without finishing their ability to send their customers’ monthly statements.

Chao’s comments just underscore the risk for considerable backroom and therefore customer service issues when volume picks up.

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Wait. So How Do I Find out if a Specialist Is Covered by My Plan?

A THCB reader in Connecticut writes:

“I’m a pretty level headed person. I’ve been following the Healthcare.gov story in the news and figured it was more of the usual partisan stupidity out of Washington. I decided to do my homework before getting too worked up.

I went on to my state exchange and compared the available plans. Gold. Silver. Bronze. All very logical. I spent some time comparing options and found a plan I liked. So far so straightforward. No complaints. No plan shortage in my state.

The problems started when I picked up the phone and attempted to communicate with a living breathing human being. I figured it would be a good idea to confirm that my OBGYN’s practice is covered. To make a long story short, I have a pretty serious pre-existing condition that could hypothetically kill me. My OBGYN is one of the best in the state. Moving to another practice is NOT AN OPTION.

Knowing how the system works, I called my OBGYN’s office and asked them to confirm that my doctor’s plan was covered. Should be a five minute call. No luck. Sorry. They don’t have the information yet. Probably yes. They helpfully suggest I give the health plan a call. Well, that’s logical, I think to myself.  It takes time for new plans to  about the plans to make it through the system. So I take their advice.

I call the health plan involved and politely tell them why I’m calling and what I need to know.  Guess what? They don’t know either.

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A Plan B For Healthcare.gov?



It is now becoming clear that the Obama administration will not have Health.care.gov fixed by December 1 so hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of people will be able to smoothly enroll by January 1.

Why do I say that? Look at this from the administration spokesperson’s daily Healthcare.gov progress report on Friday:

Essentially what is happening is people [those working on the fixes] are going through the entire process. As we have fixed certain pieces of functionality, like the account creation process, we’re seeing volume go further down the application. We’re identifying new issues that we need to be in a position to troubleshoot.

Does that sound like the kind of report you would expect if they were on track to fix this in less than three weeks? Their biggest problem is that they admittedly don’t know what they don’t know.

The spokesperson also reiterated the administration intends to have Obamacare’s computer system “functioning smoothly for the vast majority of users” by the end of the month.

It’s time for the Obama administration to get real.

It takes months to properly test a complex data system like this. Two things are obvious:

  1. When they launched on October 1, very little of the testing had been completed.
  2. They are now in the midst of that many months long testing and fixing period. It is clear they don’t have a few weeks of work left; they have months of work left.Continue reading…

Information Asymmetry – The Politics of Health IT Policy

Let’s recognize Healthcare.gov as the dawn of mass patient engagement – and applaud it. Before this website, patients were along for the ride. Employers choose most of the insurance benefits, hospital web portals are an afterthought, and getting anything done with an insurance company, for both doctors and patients, means a phone call and paper. Can you imagine going online to find out the actual cost and buy anything? All that changed with Healthcare.gov.

Information is valuable and not evenly distributed. The haves are immensely valuable corporations. The have nots are patients and doctors. Welcome to the world of health IT politics where the rich get richer ($20 Billion of “incentives” have caused massive health IT consolidation and a hidden health surveillance state) and the poor get frustrated (talk to an independent physician about their EHR or to a patient trying to access her own health records).

Information asymmetry drives $1 Trillion waste of our $2.7 Trillion health care cost. That waste is about $3,000 per year per citizen.

The politics of health IT policy are not left vs. right but institution vs. individual. Politicians and regulators alike are now scrambling to understand the role of health IT policy in that $3,000 annual waste per citizen.

The asymmetry that drives health IT policy is easy to understand when you consider that health IT is sold to corporations. As physicians and patients, we do not prescribe or buy information technology and we are paying the price through a total lack of price and quality transparency.

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