Big new ObamaCare glitch: Insurance companies receiving incomplete data on applicants from federal website

Result: Even people who think they’ve signed up for insurance might not actually be signed up. Imagine their confusion when January rolls around and their insurance card still hasn’t come in the mail yet.

Jonah Goldberg made a good point on Twitter this a.m. Is it still fair to blame all of this on “glitches”? A “glitch” is when your taillight doesn’t work. When your brakes fail and you go careening off the overpass, that’s more what we’d call a “catastrophic failure.”

While it’s not clear how widespread the problem is, the reports from industry consultants are the first hint that the technical troubles faced by consumers trying to enroll in health plans under the Affordable Care Act may also be hitting the insurers. The companies are receiving electronic files that can’t open or have so much missing information on new enrollees they’re unusable, the consultants said.

Some insurers have been forced to fix entries by hand, said Bob Laszewski, an insurance-industry consultant based in Arlington, Virginia.

“If we don’t see substantial improvement by the end of this week, then I would throw up the yellow flag,” said Dan Schuyler, a consultant advising states and insurers on the exchanges. “If we don’t see it in the next two to three weeks, it’s time for red flags. The concern is some people could get to Jan. 1, and not have coverage.”…

“If you’ve only got a dozen bad enrollments, that’s OK, but what are you going to do when you have 200,000 bad enrollments?” Laszewski said. “What we’re seeing in public is the web portal, which is a mess. It is just as bad behind the wizard’s curtain.”

The more time insurers have to spend cleaning up incomplete data, the more of a backlog there’ll be in processing applications and activating coverage. And that assumes that all applications are amenable to clean-up. What happens to the people who’ve been told by that their application’s been received and their data ends up being so badly mangled that the insurance company can’t even identify them conclusively to contact them? This was the point of yesterday’s post. Right now the feds are telling the media that the big problems with the website are scalability and coding errors in the sign-up process, but there’s no sound reason to believe that’s true. It may be true that errors in sign-up coding are the biggest problem they’re aware of, but it’s almost impossible to believe that, given their haplessness in getting the sign-up process to run smoothly, the more advanced functions of the site will run like clockwork once they iron out this initial wrinkle. And so the countdown begins: How long before HHS has to swallow its pride and add a huge warning to the homepage encouraging people to sign up by phone rather than use the site? (The contact number is already there but on an inner page, which you need to look for.) And how long will that process take between long wait times on the phone and the logistical burden of having federal bureaucrats process applications and calculate subsidies instead of the machine?

They had three years to figure this out. In theory, I mean; in practice, as Megan McArdle notes, they let half of that time expire before getting cracking on building the exchanges. A brilliant kid can wait until the last minute and still ace a complex school project, but we’re not governed by brilliant kids:

I do not think that the Republicans can be blamed for this particular disaster. They did not force the administration to wait until late 2011 to begin awarding important contracts for implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Presumably, they were also not skulking around the Department of Health and Human Services, writing the memos that delayed, until February of this year, the deadline for states to declare whether they’d be running their own exchanges.

I predicted in December 2012 that the exchanges would not be up and running on time with minimal knowledge of how the contracts and budgeting were being run, because the administration was being pretty closed-mouthed about those things. Was I prophetic? Hardly. I just didn’t see how the administration could make things work in the allotted time frame. The development cycle was just too aggressive, even with what my boss used to call a “Shake and Bake” system (take something out of the box, add a few of your own ingredients and roll it out). I thought about the software-implementation projects I’d worked on (not in development but on the server side) back in the days when I was an IT consultant. This seemed a lot faster than anything that any company I’d ever worked with would commit to, even if it had already designed some of the underlying architecture.

They could have delayed the rollout, of course, just like they delayed the employer mandate. But the mandate was a delay that helped them politically and a delay of the exchanges would hurt them politically because it would give the GOP more time to build public opposition to O-Care and maybe even take back the Senate. They’d rather the public be stuck with a defective product whose bugs are being worked out in real time than assume some political risk in the name of getting it right. And so here’s the result on Day 8:

The headline for Kathleen Sebelius’s ObamaCare op-ed at USA Today is “ simple, user-friendly.” Exit question: Buried deep in the NYT’s story on the website trainwreck this morning is the fact that the two chief contractors in building the site (whom the feds refuse to officially identify) claim that “they had passed operational readiness reviews conducted last month by the federal government.” What should we make of that? Did the feds purposely drop their readiness standards in the name of rolling this out on October 1, come glitch hell or 404 high water? Or are the feds themselves so deeply in the dark about how to make the site run efficiently that, as best as they could tell, the sites were ready? Gotta be the first explanation, no?

Update: I tweaked the headline and a line in the post to say that it’s incomplete data that’s plaguing the insurance companies, not necessarily garbled data. I drew that conclusion initially because users have reported garbled messages on the website itself, but the Bloomberg piece doesn’t say that specifically.

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