Feds: On second thought, maybe you shouldn't use paper applications to sign up for ObamaCare either

If the website doesn’t work (much) and paper applications don’t work (they take too long to process), what’s left? What possible medium could they use at this point to get people who are desperate for coverage enrolled before December 23rd? Our only hope now, my friends, might be … the noble floppy disk. Don’t laugh — the last office in America that still uses them lies, of course, within the federal government.

Is this good news or bad news for Obama and HHS?

Federal health officials, after encouraging alternate sign-up methods amid the fumbled rollout of their online insurance website, began quietly urging counselors around the country this week to stop using paper applications to enroll people in health insurance because of concerns those applications would not be processed in time

After a conference call earlier this week with federal health officials, Illinois health officials sent a memo Thursday to their roughly 1,600 navigators saying there is no way to complete marketplace enrollment through a paper application. The memo, which Claffey said was based on guidance from federal officials, said paper applications should be used only if other means aren’t available…

That contradicts what federal health officials told reporters during a national media call this week, during which they said there were no problems with paper applications…

In early November, President Barack Obama himself encouraged paper applications as one of several alternatives to the federal website.

The good news: I assume it’s only because the website really is working better that they feel comfortable nudging people back towards using Healthcare.gov and away from paper applications. The paper option was always more of a political fallback than a technical one anyway. The info on your paper form gets entered into the same system that serves the website; if the latter doesn’t work, the former won’t either. By discouraging paper now, HHS is doing what it can to free up some agency and insurance industry manpower for the nightmarish logistical challenges to come later this month. The bad news: One advantage that the paper form has over the website is that you can trust that the information on it is correct. That’s no small thing when the feds are still reporting a website “834 error rate” of 10 percent. Will insurers save more time waiting for people to enroll on Healthcare.gov and then painstakingly correcting the errors in their files or processing and inputting paper forms themselves? Beyond that, the more people decide to skip paper enrollment and stick with the website, the greater the risk that the site will be overwhelmed by traffic and crash down the stretch. Not a huge risk right now, but what about next weekend when there are less than 10 days left before the enrollment deadline?

Regardless, this raises a new question: How heavy is the backlog of paper forms that the feds now feel they have no choice but to cry “no mas”? You would think they’d want to keep all methods of applying open in December even if the website’s functioning better than before. John Ekdahl theorized on Wednesday that maybe the much-hyped surge of 29,000 enrollments in the first two days of December wasn’t a product of people flooding into the site after all but merely the feds clearing a backlog of enrollments that had been caught temporarily in limbo while Healthcare.gov was being repaired in November. (A commenter later gave some credence to the theory.) If that’s true, then no one outside HHS itself knows whether there really has been a new surge of enrollments this month. And if it’s not true, how come HHS isn’t giving us daily updates on the alleged big flood of sign-ups? Clearly Sebelius is receiving daily numbers or else they couldn’t have given us the figures for December 1st and 2nd. Where are the numbers for the 3rd through today? Why not share them?

By the way, in case you missed it in Headlines, the administrator of Maryland’s state ObamaCare exchange, which was touted pre-launch as a model for others before crashing into one technical brick wall after another, has now resigned. Maryland’s enrollment goal through next March is 150,000 people. Total so far as of yesterday: 3,758 and counting.