A key player in the new health care law's implementation opened a summit among America's health insurers on Thursday by admitting that Obamacare's rollout did not go as planned.
"There's no question that this has been hard for all of us," said Gary Cohen, director of Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, "and a lot harder than certainly we had hoped."
He said enrollment on state-based health exchanges was "significantly slower" than hoped in October and November, but they always figured sign-ups would be slow at first. The initial concern, he added, was that many people might not have heard about the Obamacare markets.
"Well, boy, we've cured that problem," he told a conference of America's Health Insurance Plans.
The AHIP conference at a hotel ballroom in Washington provided a key opportunity for the industry to assess where they stand after Obamacare's rocky rollout. Although one speaker joked they cannot "pop the champagne" and that she hasn't started her Christmas shopping, there was an underlying feeling of optimism about the reforms.
Mr. Cohen, arguably the Obama administration official who has faced the most Republican ire on Capitol Hill, said the federal health exchange system tied to Obamacare is working at its intended capacity after hundreds of software fixes to the federal web portal, HealthCare.gov, which serves 36 states.
He compared ongoing fixes to the exchange system to apps on his iPhone, which constantly alert him of upgrades.
"It doesn't mean the app didn't work before, necessarily," Mr. Cohen said.
Nonetheless, the October debut of the federal exchange caused heartburn for many users. The Obama administration had to launch a "tech surge" to fix HealthCare.gov, after numerous complaints and intense pressure to get the system working, especially as millions of Americans lost plans that did not comply with Obamacare's coverage requirements.
Mr. Cohen pointed to some of the problems that overloaded the front end of the website, including the lack of a window-shopping function that would have let consumers compare plans before registering on the site.
"That was something we always intended to have but didn't get into the final build because it wasn't ready," he said.
But he assured insurers that they will be paid, as the administration works on getting back-office financial systems up and running by mid-January.
Republican critics of Mr. Obama's overhaul say the administration is dragging its feet in getting the full system up and running. They've also warned that health premiums will go up for many people.
Mr. Cohen told conferees it is difficult to generalize about the impact of the exchanges on America at large, since "because we have states' markets and they vary a lot."
He signaled that more states may want to set up and run their own markets in the future, because it would allow them to tailor their exchanges to their individual needs.
Mr. Cohen also said there's been talk of "regional marketplaces," or a system in which states share their information-technology platforms with each other.
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