- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2013

The systemwide defects in Obamacare mounted Monday, from compounding enrollment problems to soaring insurance cancellations to breaches of privacy, as the Obama administration struggled to contain the political damage and repair its laughingstock health care website.

The number of people receiving cancellation notices from their insurers rose to more than 3.5 million, in spite of President Obama’s debunked pledge that Americans could keep their plans if they liked them.

Mr. Obama’s subsequent reassurances that people who lose coverage can “just shop around” is increasingly a dead end for consumers who can’t access the government’s malfunctioning website or can’t get their applications processed via non-electronic options recommended by the president.

A newly released government memo shows administration officials knew as early as Oct. 11 that it was misleading for Mr. Obama and his aides to urge consumers to apply on paper for insurance because the paper applications were “all stuck in the same queue” because of website crashes. But 10 days later, Mr. Obama held an event in the White House Rose Garden touting the advantages of applying on paper to circumvent the website glitches.

The White House offered the defense Monday that consumers who fill out paper forms aren’t kept waiting for the website to work, even if they are unaware that their applications can’t be processed right away.

“The paperwork is filled out for them and the process is taken over from there,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

As the health care program’s problems deepened, Mr. Obama scheduled a trip to Dallas for Wednesday to praise volunteers at an Obamacare call center who are “helping consumers learn about and enroll in quality, affordable health insurance plans,” the White House said. The president is expected again to defend a law that is getting harder to defend by the day.

The HealthCare.gov website, which enrolled only 248 people in its first three days of operation, now is being taken down four hours per day so high-tech troubleshooters can work on fixing it. The site won’t be available from 1-5 a.m. EST each day until the problems are corrected, the Department of Health and Human Services said.

“Additional down times may be possible as we work to make things better,” the agency said.

Users who attempted to start the registration process Monday afternoon were greeted by the now-familiar message: “The system is down at the moment.”

Contractors and officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said the site experienced a 90-minute outage that started at 12:40 p.m. and that additional outages are likely as they try to make the online portal accessible for the “vast majority of users” by the end of the month.

“This is a natural part of the process,” said Andy Slavitt, executive vice president of a company that owns Quality Software Services Inc., which has been chosen to oversee repairs.

CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said the website is “fixable” and some consumers are able to enroll, so there is no need to take down the site completely as some lawmakers have suggested.

She said paper applications are being processed “as quickly as possible” and offer a benefit to users, despite revelations about their hurdles in the queue, because they bypass the front-end registration process that jammed up the website.

The administration has promised to fix the site by the end of this month. The government wants about 7 million people enrolled for insurance by the end of March, the deadline to buy coverage or face a fine.

Even some states that aren’t participating in the federal government’s health care exchanges are reporting problems. In Maryland, officials said only 4,500 people enrolled in the state-based exchange in October, barely more than 1 percent who visited the website. In Vermont, after a series of glitches, Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, invoked the legal safety mechanism that will give state residents the option of bypassing the state’s $170 million exchange to obtain health insurance for 2014.

Among the multiplying stories of people who are losing their health care plans, some go beyond complaints of rising premiums into the realm of life-and-death struggles. For example, Edie Littlefield Sundby of Southern California, who has battled stage four gallbladder cancer for nearly seven years, said she must give up her high-quality coverage under the law and cannot obtain a comparable plan in California’s exchange, even with the help of a trained Obamacare adviser.

“What happened to the president’s promise, ‘You can keep your health plan’? Or to the promise that ‘You can keep your doctor’?” she wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Thanks to the law, I have been forced to give up a world-class health plan. The exchange would force me to give up a world-class physician.”

On Monday night, Mr. Obama added a caveat to the oft-repeated “you-can-keep-it” promise, telling a gathering of supporters in Washington that, “if you have or had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really like that plan, what we said was you could keep it, if it hasn’t changed since the law was passed.

“We wrote into the Affordable Care Act, you’re grandfathered in on that plan. But if the insurance company changes it, then what we’re saying is they’ve got to change it to a higher standard,” he said.

Stories also are emerging of consumers’ privacy being compromised, despite administration assurances that submitted information is secure. Justin Hadley, a North Carolina father who logged onto HealthCare.gov to evaluate his insurance options after his health care plan was canceled, discovered an apparent security flaw that disclosed eligibility letters addressed to people from another state.

Mr. Hadley, who alerted the conservative Heritage Foundation of the problem, was greeted with downloadable letters about eligibility for two people in South Carolina. One of them, lawyer Thomas Dougall of Elgin, S.C., later said he contacted his congressional representatives to have his personal information removed from the government website.

As the scope of the program’s failures came into fuller view, the president and his aides were facing more questions about why Mr. Obama made promises that some senior officials knew he couldn’t keep.

Asked why Mr. Obama repeatedly told the public that people could keep their doctors and their plans, Mr. Carney said “it was not a point of debate that I remember or participated in.”

His predecessor, Robert Gibbs, who left the White House in 2011, said it was wrong for Mr. Obama to have made such promises.

“I don’t recall significant discussions around some of the verbiage on this,” Mr. Gibbs said on MSNBC.

Administration memos provided to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed that officials were aware that options for bypassing the website were no speedier than the website itself, a full 10 days before Mr. Obama urged the public to apply for insurance on paper or by calling a toll-free number.

“The paper applications allow people to feel like they are moving forward in the process and provides another option; at the end of the day, we are all stuck in the same queue,” said the notes from an Obama administration meeting on Oct. 11.

A memo from another team meeting on Oct. 15 indicated that Obamacare community organizers known as “navigators” were falling back to the paper applications as a way to save face when the website didn’t work.

“Navigators are seeing people very frustrated and walking away, so they are turning to paper applications to protect their reputations as people in the communities who can help, even though paper applications will not have a quicker result necessarily,” the memo stated.

The website’s repair team has improved its transmission of 834 forms, a vital back-end report that is sent to insurers with information about individuals and their selected plans, Ms. Bataille said.

The notices should reflect the correct date-and-time stamp, health plan ID number and consumer contact information for each transaction.

“All of those things are pieces of content that need to properly be displayed in order for the issuers themselves to then finalize and process their own transaction with the consumer,” Ms. Bataille said.


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