Beginning on November 15, a new period of open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act will begin, putting the notorious federal insurance exchange portal, Healthcare.gov, to a new test. Outwardly, officials insist that the many issues that the website experienced in late 2013 and early 2014 are only a memory. The Washington Post’s reporting indicates, however, that administration officials may be less confident in the Obamacare website than they appear.
“[F]ederal health officials and government contractors are scrambling, according to confidential documents and federal and outside experts familiar with this work,” The Post reported on Monday. “They have been making contingency plans in case the information technology or other aspects prove less sturdy than the administration predicts. And some preparations are coming down to the wire.”
“We’re really making sure that that Web site works super well,” President Obama said at a news conference a few days ago. “We’re double- and triple-checking it.”
Despite such efforts, the confidential documents written in recent weeks hint at elaborate backup planning that undercuts the administration’s predictions that an improved HealthCare.gov will be able to handle everyone who wants to sign up. More broadly, they reflect the high stakes confronting the administration as it tries to avoid last year’s mistakes and deal with new threats to the Affordable Care Act: the Republican gains in the midterm elections and the Supreme Court’s decision to review the government insurance subsidies that are a linchpin of the law.
The White House is promising a vigorous defense when the Supreme Court hears a new case involving the health care law. (AP) One document from late October, for instance, describes a new system known as “throttling,” which will be deployed if the number of people trying to use HealthCare.gov at the same time strains the Web site’s enlarged capacity.
This throttling could send groups of people using different parts of the site into separate online “waiting rooms.” It is a “structured approach,” says the document from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency overseeing HealthCare.gov. This method, the document says, would detect overloads sooner and be more efficient than the one long online queue federal officials devised last winter to deal with the frozen error messages — dubbed the “blue screen of death” — that many consumers got when the exchange opened last fall.
For some reason, dubbing the process of triaging prospective Obamacare enrollees when the system is overwhelmed “throttling” does not inspire confidence.
Moreover, why the system could be overwhelmed by prospective enrollees is a mystery. There are currently 7.3 million people enrolled in health plans created through the ACA, and, while it is safe to say that many of these enrollees used Healthcare.gov to sign up, others used state insurance exchange portals or enrolled in person with the assistance of a facilitator. The CBO estimates that, by the end of 2015, another 5.7 million will have enrolled in federal insurance exchanges – a marked drop off from 2013-2014’s extended enrollment period. Even with this reduced demand, the federal government remains concerned about website crashes and overloads?
Nevertheless, administration officials insist that the system can handle twice the number of shoppers that it could last year. In order to test this assumption, a portion of Healthcare.gov went live on Sunday night which will allow prospective insurance purchasers to explore the site and compare plans before the new open enrollment period begins.
As The Post notes, the insurance exchange system will face a level of scrutiny this year that will make last year’s look charitable. In the wake of a historic repudiation of the president’s party in the midterm elections, and the announcement last week that the Supreme Court will review the arguments in Halbig v. Burwell, all eyes will be on the website to see if the federal government can effectively administer this program.
If the website functions as well as it did in 2013, faith in Obamacare to deliver on its promises will only continue to drop and Republicans will be emboldened to commence with their strategy of killing the health care reform law with a thousand cuts.