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Tag: Healthcare.gov

The Latest Mystery: What Is Happening to All Those Paper Applications?

Enrollments continue to trickle in. Health plans, with the kind of market share that would have to sign-up 100,000 to 200,000 people for the administration to hit its goal of 7 million people, are generally reporting they have enrolled only about 100 – 200 people over the first 35 days via Healthcare.gov.

Does this mean no one wants to sign-up? No. People can argue about whether we will see the administration hit their goal of seven million or we will end up getting two or three million relatively sicker people for all of the problems Obamacare has faced. But, undoubtedly millions of people, including all of those people who just got cancellation notices, do want to see what they can get for what cost and make a decision about signing up. But they can’t because they aren’t able get through the entire Healthcare.gov website.

As I have said before, Healthcare.gov, because of its many problems, is in de facto shutdown because virtually no one is able to really use it.

Why doesn’t the administration just tell people the site is still too frustrating for people to waste their time on until it is fixed? Instead, the administration says it is getting better and people should keep trying to make it through the gauntlet. More, they are telling them to call the 800 number to fill out a paper application.

If it is better, it is still not better enough for more than a very small trickle to make it through each day.

Many states have literally dozens of complex health plan choices on the federal exchange––each insurance company on the various exchanges is likely offering the four different plans. I find it hard to understand how a consumer can get any real sense of the options over the phone much more be able to understand which plans cover which doctors and hospitals. People really need to see the options on their computer or on the computer of a navigator or an insurance agent to understand what is available and how it fits their needs.

And, as ABC and NBC reported yesterday evening, the paper applications ultimately have to go through the Healthcare.gov system anyway. One thing is crystal clear from the health plans meager enrollment to date; the insurance companies are not getting these “thousands” of paper applications. Where are they sitting?

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November is the New October

Many health care experts and journalists, including me, felt that the month of October would be the key barometer of the success of Healthcare.gov, the online health insurance marketplace that is a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act.

But as days became weeks, and the problems plaguing the website stubbornly went unfixed, the question now is whether the administration can make the website work well by the end of this month and salvage the president’s signature achievement. If Healthcare.gov, which handles health insurance enrollment for 36 states, is working well at the end of this month, it will leave consumers just two weeks to choose plans if they want them to take effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

In other words, November is the new October.

The din of partisan accusations and counter-accusations is deafening and only getting louder. But in the interest of finding out what’s really happening on the ground, I consulted Kip Piper, who advises large health care organizations on Medicare, Medicaid, and health reform policy, finance and business strategy.

Piper has served as senior advisor to the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Wisconsin state health administrator, director of the Wisconsin Medicaid program, a senior Medicare budget officer at the White House Office of Management and Budget, among other roles. He is articulate and clear-headed.

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Can Everybody Please Just Calm Down?

This week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized to Americans for the issues with the launch of the Obama Administration’s website, HealthCare.gov. In her testimony, Ms. Sebelius told Congress that we “deserve better.” And with that, the social media world was set on fire with a rage of backlash aimed at the Administration – something that has been growing feverishly for months now.

Yes, we agree that the American public deserves better – but not just from the Administration. They deserve more from the private sector, too. At this point, some of the biggest naysayers of the Fed’s exchange launch have been leaders in our industry. It’s disheartening to watch.

It’s clear by now that the private sector can offer the government a wealth of knowledge and best practices. But for the Administration to truly learn from those lessons and fix the problems, we need to step up and stop undermining this effort.

As a start, there are three things the private sector should do to counteract what much of the media refers to as a complete debacle:

1.  First, just calm down.Focus instead on helping clear up the confusion about deadlines, options and the law. For example, we should remind Americans that they can still get insurance, despite all of the issues HealthCare.gov is experiencing. Legally, Americans don’t need insurance until the end of March 2014. And, if they need something sooner, not only may short-term medical insurance be an option, but there are many off-exchange plans available to buy today from multiple carriers. In other words, HealthCare.gov is not the only source of coverage.

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Why Isn’t There a Healthcare.gov App?

A THCB reader who asked that we not identify him because his company does unrelated contracting work with the government writes in to ask:

“Why isn’t there a Healthcare.gov app? If the problem is that the system is failing because the poorly designed Healthcare.gov web site is being crashed by monster waves of traffic, wouldn’t putting out an app help?

I mean, ‘cmon guys. It’s 2013. Millions of Americans have iPhones, iPads, Androids and god knows what other mobile devices. In theory a freestanding app — even a simple one — that allowed browsing and “print my application” capabilities would help the traffic problem by giving people an alternative way to access the features available at the government web site.

If the problem is in fact the web site and not the data hub, wouldn’t that go a long way to solving the problem? How hard could it possibly be to put something together quickly and get it out there? Why isn’t this being done?

Knowing how this game works, I’m pretty sure the plan was to originally include something like this. Then the vendors and contractors involved quoted an astronomically high price tag that nobody was willing to go for. Then somebody else said something ominous about privacy and an awkward silence broke out at the table. The Healthcare.gov app was put in the “nice to have” – “we’ll get around to it when we can” – “bells and whistles” camp.”

Have a brilliant idea that could help save Healthcare.gov? Somebody has got to do something.  Drop us a note. We’ll publish the good ideas.

Questions for Secretary Sebelius

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee this morning. Her testimony comes the week after Healthcare.gov contractors testified before the same committee and a day after the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services testified before a different House committee.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Where to watch the hearing, which began at 9 a.m. EST:

Live coverage via C-SPAN.

2. Read Sebelius’ prepared testimony. Politico calls it more of the same:

Sebelius’s eight pages of prepared testimony for the House Energy and Commerce Committee matches nearly word-for-word testimony delivered by CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner to Ways and Means on Tuesday.

In both written statements, the officials acknowledge that the website hasn’t met expectations but say the administration is taking major steps to improve it.

Neither testimony includes an apology for the bungled launch—but Tavenner verbally apologized at the hearing Tuesday morning.

Clay Johnson (@cjoh), who advocates for open source information in the federal government, annotated the testimony on Rap Genius, with questions and comments.

3. Get familiar with the background. Sebelius gave an interview to CNN’s Sanjay Gupta last week in which she had this memorable exchange:

Gupta: The president did say that he was angry about this. I mean do you know when he first knew that there was a problem?

Sebelius: Well, I think it became clear fairly early on. The first couple of days, that —

Gupta: So not before that, though? Not before October 1st?

Sebelius: No, sir.

Gupta: There was no concern at that point here in the White House or at HHS?

Sebelius: I think that we talked about having — testing, going forward. And if we had an ideal situation and could have built the product in, you know, a five-year period of time, we probably would have taken five years. But we didn’t have five years. And certainly Americans who rely on health coverage didn’t have five years for us to wait. We wanted to make sure we made good on this final implementation of the law.

And, again, people can sign up. The call center is open for business. We’ve had 1,100,000 calls. We’ve had 19 million people visit the Web site, 500,000 accounts created. And people are shopping every day. So people are signing up and there’s help in neighborhoods around the country, that people can have a one-on-one visit with a trained navigator and figure out how to sign up. So people are able to sign up.

I wondered at the time if Sebelius’ answer left a little wiggle room. I expect Republicans on the committee will pursue this.

4. Digest media reports. You can definitely expect that Sebelius will be asked about a CNN report yesterday that Healthcare.gov’s lead contractor warned the administrator well before the Oct. 1 launch of major problems. Read the documents.

CNBC suggests these six questions for her:

—What did you know, when did you know it, and who told you?

—Did you ever consider not launching Oct. 1?

—Why has no one been fired?

—What does all this cost?

—What contingency plans do you have?

—What are the enrollment numbers?

TPM offers what it calls seven legitimate questions for her.

And the Washington Post says that “the embattled secretary of health and human services will submit to a quintessential station of the Washington deathwatch.” Gotta love Washington.

Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter at ProPublica and past president of AHCJ. An earlier version of this post originally appeared on his tumblr, Healthy buzz.

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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Should Sebelius Resign?

As Congress begins investigations into the Affordable Care Act rollout and the healthcare.gov flaws, Republicans are calling for resignations as far up as the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The logic goes: if managerial issues were behind failures to test the website component of the federal health care exchange, we need new management.

That concern is a valid one. In the private sector and often times in the public sector, when misakes happen—particularly in an area critical to the executive’s interests—heads roll.

Yet, Kathleen Sebelius will stay, and Republicans have no one to blame but themselves.

Why is this? In an ironic twist of fate the Republican Party’s obsession with filibustering, delaying, or holding executive branch nominations will finally have negative consequences for the GOP instead of the president.

Over the past several years, Republicans in Congress had refused to confirm a director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because they did not like the law that authorized the agency. They refused to confirm nominees to the National Labor Relations Board because of opposition to unions. They put a hold on the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for fear he may require more transparency in campaign activity. The examples go on.

Why, then, would President Obama remove Secretary Sebelius and nominate a replacement? The HHS Secretary oversees the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And GOP opposition to CFPB or NLRB or FCC pales in comparison to the visceral and existential contempt the party feels toward Obamacare. Given such opposition, the president would be foolish to make such a change in HHS leadership.

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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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The 834 Problem

You have probably already heard that Obamacare has as many backroom problems as problems with the front end consumer web enrollment portal.

Insurance companies participating in the new health insurance exchanges are receiving detailed enrollment information for each of the very few people who have successfully enrolled through the 36 federally run health insurance exchanges.

But the problem is that this enrollment is coming from the government with a very high rate of errors––way beyond anything they can handle manually once the real enrollment volume comes in.

So long as each insurance company is receiving only 10 or 20 enrollments a day––that is what they are receiving now––the high error rate enrollments can be fixed with lots of hands-on effort. If the Obama administration fixes the consumer portal before fixing the 834 problem, the insurance companies could begin receiving thousands of enrollments with high error rates every day.

That would bring the insurance company information technology departments to their knees. It would mean lots of new policyholders could have problems getting their bank accounts properly debited, their claims held up, or health care providers refusing to treat them because they aren’t on the list of covered people.

So this is a very big deal.

An 834 transaction is a technical term for exactly how enrollment information is exchanged, in this case, between the federal government and the health insurance companies.

The 834 transaction represents a computer “benefit enrollment and maintenance document.” It is commonly used by employers, unions, government plan sponsors (Medicare Part D, for example), and insurance marketing organizations to enroll members in a health benefit plan. This current version developed out of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). So, it has been around for many years.

This process is where the federal government’s backroom has come off the rails and is in need of an urgent fix.

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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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