- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2014

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said Thursday that HealthCare.gov’s second go-around will be smoother than the first, vowing the website won’t suffer the type of major hiccups that proved such an embarrassment a year ago.

As Obamacare enters its second act, the administration is testing the federal portal’s capacity and reducing the time that new enrollees need to spend in front of the computer, she said. And they are doing “everything we can” to stabilize state-run health exchanges that had trouble in the first enrollment and needed to reshape their technology.

“The experience will be better,” Mrs. Burwell told reporters told reporters at an event hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the HealthAffairs publication.”We have said it will not be perfect, we know there will be issues that will be raised as we go along in the process.”

Myriad questions remain about the government’s ability to run HealthCare.gov, which serves 36 states, and to assist the 14 state-run health exchanges and the District of Columbia’s exchange. Consumers can use the exchanges to buy private health plans, and often are eligible for government tax subsidies.

Despite initial problems, 7.3 million people were enrolled in plans through the exchanges as of mid-August, and the latest Gallup polling says the Affordable Care Act cut the uninsured rate by nearly 4 percentage points.

Mrs. Burwell did not set a goal for how many of those customers they hope to re-enroll, but said those returning for a second year will be encouraged to shop around instead of re-enrolling in the exact same plan. That’s because the cost of their plans may change in 2015, and their financial calculations may be different since the benchmark plans that determined their subsidy amount may have changed.

SEE ALSO: Despite boon to the uninsured, Obamacare still decried

The second open enrollment begins on Nov. 15.

HHS has to worry about people who are re-enrolling alongside people signing up for the first time. Mrs. Burwell said her team has reduced the number of screens the first-timers must go through on HealthCare.gov from 76 to 16.

“We want to make this as simple as possible,” she said.

Some of the agency’s battles will take place on Capitol Hill.

A coalition of Senate Republicans led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida sent a letter to House Speaker John A. Boehner this week asking him to include a ban in the next spending bill on President Obama’s use of tax dollars to bail out insurers suffering financial losses under Obamacare.

According to the senators, health insurers expect to receive a total of $1 billion through the risk corridors program set up under Obamacare, which pays out or takes in money based on unexpected costs from the risk pools that insurers will serve on the Obamacare marketplace.

SEE ALSO: Hillary Clinton hedges on Obamacare tax: ‘I don’t know what the right answer is’

The Republicans fear Mr. Obama will try to shift money around on his own to prop up health companies. But Mrs. Burwell said she doubts they’ll need to find extra money in the upcoming year, and if they do, she vowed to come to Congress for authorization — a request that congressional Republicans are unlikely to grant.

Mrs. Burwell said her team is working off consumer feedback and the lessons from the technology breakdown that marred Obamacare’s rollout in October of last year. Mrs. Burwell pointed out that at that time she was “still running a government shutdown” as the White House budget director, while HHS was run by then-Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who resigned in the wake of the problems.

Mrs. Burwell said her department is engaged in “load testing” to make sure the website can handle tens of thousands of customers at once — a problem that plagued the first days of HealthCare.gov last year, when too many customers flooded the system, causing it to crash or time out.

She also said no federal funds are being used to fund abortions through subsidized Obamacare plans — except in cases of rape or incest, as the law allows — although her department is working with states to make sure they enforce rules that require separate fees and invoices within plans that offer elective abortions. The Government Accountability Office recently released an audit that suggested many states were not separating out funds for abortions from premium billing for government-subsidized insurance.

Kellan Howell contributed to this report.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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