Under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike over the problems plaguing the website for its health care law, the White House said late Wednesday it will allow prospective insurance purchasers more time to sign up without facing penalties.
Even though open enrollment lasts until March 31, people lacking health insurance who postponed buying coverage beyond mid-February could potentially have faced penalties if they failed to get insurance within the first three months of the year. The White House called that a “disconnect,” and officials said that if consumers sign up by the end of March they will not face the $95 penalty.
No action from Congress is needed to make that happen, the White House said. But Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said Wednesday night that he was working on bill with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., to delay for a year the initial penalty.
Democrats had hoped to run for re-election touting the benefits of the health care law for millions of uninsured Americans, but the computer glitches are keeping many people from signing up. Their unhappiness with the situation began growing louder Wednesday, including one call for President Barack Obama to “man up” and fire someone.
The chief target among Republicans is Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose department is in charge of the law’s rollout, and who can expect tough questioning from a GOP-led House committee next week when she testifies about the law’s flawed debut. House Speaker John Boehner declared, “We’ve got the whole threat of Obamacare continuing to hang over our economy like a wet blanket.”
Obama himself, though strongly defending the health care overhaul, has been increasingly willing to acknowledge extensive problems with the sign-up through online markets. Amid all that, the Health and Human Services Department on Wednesday provided its most specific accounting yet of the troubles with HealthCare.gov.
Acknowledging what has been obvious to many outside experts, the administration said Wednesday that the system didn’t get enough testing, especially at a high user volume. It blamed a compressed time frame for meeting the Oct. 1 deadline to open the insurance markets. Basic “alpha and user testing” are now completed, but that’s supposed to happen before a launch, not after.
The Health and Human Services explanation identified some bugs that have gotten little outside attention. For example, technical problems have surfaced that are making it hard for people to complete the application and plan-shopping functions. That’s a big concern because those stages are further along in the signup process than the initial registration, where many consumers have been getting tripped up.
The problems are being analyzed and fixes are planned, the department said.
The explanation, posted online in a department blog and accompanying graphic, identified other broad areas of problems and outlined fixes that were underway but in most cases incomplete:
— Unexpectedly high consumer interest that overwhelmed the system in its initial days. Equipment has been added to handle the load and system design has been improved. More fixes are in progress.
— Lack of a way for consumers to browse their health plan options without first having to set up a user account. A partial fix is in place.
— Incorrect or duplicate information in enrollments is being delivered to insurance companies. Some software fixes that should help address the issue have been completed, others are underway.
— Difficulties for consumers trying to create user accounts, including drop-down menus that failed to work. Design changes and software fixes should address the situation.
The new markets are supposed to be the portal to coverage for people who do not get health insurance on the job. Middle-class people are to pick from subsidized private insurance plans, while low-income people are steered to Medicaid in states that agreed to expand that safety-net program.
The federal government is running the online markets in 36 states, and its website has had more than its share of problems. As a result, even Obama has urged consumers to revert to low-tech approaches, by applying through the mail, telephoning federal call centers, or seeking in-person assistance.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee, launching the first of several planned hearings, will hear today from contractors, including CGI Federal, the lead developer of the website, and QSSI, which designed a back-room operation known as the federal data services hub. The hub is integral to verifying applicants’ personal information and income details, and the administration says it is working as designed.
Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., chairman of the panel’s health subcommittee, said he wants to focus on the administration’s decision not to allow browsing, or window shopping. That’s a standard feature of e-commerce sites, including Medicare.gov for seniors. Lack of a browsing capability forced all users to first go through the laborious process of creating accounts, overloading that part of the site.
“Who made that decision? When was it made? Why was it made?” said Pitts.
Meanwhile, Democrats were worrying aloud about persistent problems with the rollout. Rep. Richard Nolan of Minnesota emerged from a Wednesday meeting with administration health care officials on Capitol Hill and said the computer fiasco has “damaged the brand” of the health care law.
“The president needs to man up, find out who was responsible, and fire them,” Nolan said.