Exciting new high-tech solution to ObamaCare website disaster: Paper applications

Actually, my headline’s incorrect. “Solution” suggests that people are now being successfully enrolled via paper applications. Not so. Turns out that the info on those applications needs to be input into the same wheezing, error-riddled computer system that’s forced website users into using paper in the first place. The “solution,” in other words, is simply to create a paper backlog that will need to be manually entered into the ObamaCare database by the insurance companies themselves if/when the system ever becomes stable enough to let them do that. How long will that take? How much extra labor will it involve? Good questions.

This is what “progress” looks like in ending Glitchapalooza right now.

“These are low- to moderate-income people, stopping by on their lunch break, between picking up their kids. They don’t have time to mess with a Web site that doesn’t work,” said Marie Hurt, director of Southern United Neighborhoods, a New Orleans-based charity that is helping people enroll in coverage in three states. She is encouraging people who stop by her center, inside a church, to avoid the federal Web site for now and use the paper enrollment form. “You don’t want people to get frustrated and give up.”

Timothy S. Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University who specializes in health policy, said filling out paper applications does give people the sense that the “process is underway,” he said. But, he added: “It will add to delay. It will add to errors.”…

Personnel reviewing paper applications need to manually type data from paper into the same Web-based marketplaces that consumers are using. Reviewers are entering through a different “portal” than one consumers use. But it’s the same online system.

“If you don’t have a working [online] system, paper doesn’t do you any good. It’s almost worse because there’s this illusion that you’ve finished something,” he said. “When in fact, it’s just getting stacked up waiting for the system to work.”

In Connecticut, where the state online exchange is working comparatively well, it takes a week and a half to process a single paper application. Meanwhile, the deadline for people to enroll if they want coverage next year is December 15, i.e. just two months from tomorrow. Some insurers and ObamaCare “navigators” say they’re telling would-be enrollees to sit tight for now and wait a few weeks before trying to apply, in the hope that most of the bugs on Healthcare.gov will be gone by then. If you read this other WaPo piece over the weekend, though, you know that that’s more of a wish than an informed expectation:

Evidence is emerging from the insurance industry and elsewhere, however, that the exchange also has flaws that show up further along in the process — as consumers try to check whether they qualify for federal subsidies and as insurers try to find out who has enrolled.

For instance, one major insurance carrier, Cigna, sent a notice Wednesday to insurance brokers instructing them to wait until November to try to sign up customers who might qualify for a subsidy, according to Joseph Mondy, a Cigna spokesman. He said that the company does not yet trust the reliability of the part of the exchange that is supposed to calculate the tax credits that will, for the first time, help some Americans pay for private health coverage…

Compounding the confusion, these electronic enrollment files are missing a critical element that they were built to include: a time stamp that would let a health plan track whether a consumer’s last step on the site was to actually sign up.

Insurers are uncertain of the cause of the flaws, with some speculating that the exchange cannot consolidate consumers’ moves through the Web site as they shop for and ultimately choose a health plan. Others say the problem could be unrelated software errors.

The problem “could be unrelated software errors” — or it could be something else. No one’s really sure, apparently, even though Healthcare.gov has been live to the world for almost two weeks. Insurers haven’t even begun cross-checking their own enrollment records with the feds’, in fact. That’s set to start in December, but WaPo notes drily that the cross-check system … hasn’t been tested yet. I can only assume that all parties involved are convinced that that it too would fail if they tried to use it now so they’re forced to wait another six weeks, until just before the enrollment deadline, before trying it out. Beyond all that, health-care policy expert Bob Laszewski blogged on Friday that he’d heard from sources in the insurance industry that “Things are worse behind the curtain than in front of it.” Specifically, due to the chaos of trying to sign up on the website, insurers are often notified of multiple sign-ups and cancellations by a single applicant; not only does that leave the applicant’s intentions unclear, but because it shows up as multiple “transactions” on the insurer’s side of the wall, it’s hard to tell how many enrollments overall are bona fide sign-ups and how many are just phantom accounts generated by a screwy system. It’s not impossible to sort through a mess like that when you’re dealing with 20-50 applicants a day, says Laszewski, but what happens when it’s 2,000-5,000?

If you missed it this weekend, take advantage of the slow holiday news day to read this NYT piece about how long the feds have known that this was a disaster in the making. The lead contractor — which may have been hired without a competitive bidding process(!) — apparently didn’t start writing the code until this spring because the feds didn’t issue their specifications for the site until then. Not only that, but for unfathomable reasons, Medicare & Medicaid Services decided to serve as lead contractor on the project rather than outsource that job to someone who actually knew what they were doing. Why is unclear; maybe it’s as simple as wanting the “glory” of keeping the White House’s baby boondoggle totally in-house. As of now, says one Times source, they’re estimating that the site is 70 percent of the way towards operating correctly and that the problems could be fixed in as little as two weeks or a couple of months. But that, of course, assumes they don’t step on any undiscovered landmines during the repairs. Quote: “Others warned that the fixes themselves were creating new problems, and said that the full extent of the problems might not be known because so many consumers had been stymied at the first step in the application process.”

Via the Corner, here’s number-one ObamaCare fan Ezra Klein not even attempting to spin what’s happening.