Obamacare Exchange Fiasco Provides Fodder for Alexander

The Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act medical coverage “exchanges” that rolled out this month are billed as “a new way for you to find and buy health insurance, with less hassle.”

But two weeks after the online launch of the federal government’s highly touted, highly anticipated “Health Insurance Marketplace,” hassle is the most predictable result anybody who’s tried to use the system has experienced.

Tennessee is among the 34 states that aren’t currently attempting to run an exchange on their own under the ACA, thus ceding management of the program to the federal government.

HealthCare.gov is the U.S. government’s online Obamacare portal for uninsured Americans to sign up for federally subsidized health insurance policies. Through the site, Tennesseans can, in theory, apply for plans, compare options and get covered.

Once consumers complete an application, they are supposed to be able to see if they qualify for lower costs on health insurance based on income, as well as free or low-cost coverage available through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program. According to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, consumers will be able to choose from a variety of health plans from different insurance providers.

That’s the idea, anyway.

In reality, the vast majority of potential customers have encountered an epidemic of error messages and other debilitating online ailments as they attempt to navigate the site, which cost the United States government hundreds of millions of dollars it paid a Canadian company to develop.

A poll co-sponsored by the Associated Press found that 65 percent of respondents who said they or a member of their household had tried to sign up for exchange coverage from Oct. 3-7 reported no success. Seventy-thee percent said they were confronted with problems of one sort or another.

An article in Sunday’s New York Times reported that one of its staff researchers “managed to register” in the early-morning hours when the site launched on Oct. 1. “But despite more than 40 attempts over the next 11 days, she was never able to log in. Her last attempts led her to a blank screen,” according to the Times.

As Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander sees it, one of the biggest problems that looms ever larger as a result of the exchange website’s technical woes is that the federal government is set to penalize Americans who fail to enroll in government-approved health insurance plans by mid-February. In 2014, the tax amounts to 1 percent of your income or $95, whichever is higher. The amount increases in later years.

Alexander, who is facing a GOP primary challenge from conservative Rutherford County state Rep. Joe Carr, went on a PR offensive against the Obamacare exchanges last week, issuing four media releases — three on Thursday alone — lambasting the performance of the Affordable Care Act’s key policy prong.

“The Obama administration persisted with the roll out of the Obamacare exchanges on October 1, despite countless warning signs that the exchanges were not ready to handle the millions of Americans required to purchase health insurance or face tax penalties from the individual mandate,” a release Wednesday from Alexander’s office stated.

On Thursday, Alexander, the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Health Committee, co-signed a letter with California Republican Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Government Reform Oversight Committee, requesting an explanation from the Obama administration’s health department chief “to help us evaluate the extent of the problems with Obamacare’s rollout and for us to better determine whether any corrective legislative actions are necessary.”

“From day one…HealthCare.gov has been plagued by what administration officials initially referred to as technical glitches. After six days the administration finally admitted the glitches were ‘design and software problems that have kept customers from applying online for coverage,’” Alexander and Issa said in their letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Alexander cited news reports of people waiting as long as 36 hours to enroll for insurance. He pointed to estimates indicating 99 of every 100 applications went unprocessed, and indications that many who believe they have coverage actually don’t.

Other news reports said administration officials admitted only 51,000 applications were processed through Oct. 10. At the same rate only 2 million people would be enrolled in Obamacare by the cut-off date of March 31, 2014, but 7 million are said to be needed for the health insurance experiment to work.

Online Marketplace Plagued With Problems

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials have claimed heavy traffic caused HealthCare.gov to crash. “On the first day, there were seven times as many users at one time as have ever concurrently visited Medicare.gov – one of the most visited government websites,” HHS’s Alicia Hartinger said.

But independent analysts and outside observers say the problems clearly go much deeper. Probes into the way the website was built have found coding defects, “a sloppy software foundation” and other fundamental failings, according to the Wall Street Journal.

One recurring source of ACA sign-up stoppage was related to malfunctioning security measures that persistently prevented customers from creating accounts because the federal site could not confirm the identities of enrollees, according to Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit that covers American health policy and politics.

According to Sunday’s New York Times report, the knowledge that blunders were abounding was no secret among Obamacare insiders:   

“These are not glitches,” said an insurance executive who has participated in many conference calls on the federal exchange. Like many people interviewed for this article, the executive spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he did not wish to alienate the federal officials with whom he works. “The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, ‘It’s awful, just awful.’ ”

Interviews with two dozen contractors, current and former government officials, insurance executives and consumer advocates, as well as an examination of confidential administration documents, point to a series of missteps — financial, technical and managerial — that led to the troubles.

Sen. Alexander noted in one of his releases that he’s been predicting an Obamacare “train wreck” for a while now. The Obama administration was no doubt privy to the trouble ahead but did nothing to apply the brakes, he said.

“According to some reports,” he wrote, “the administration was repeatedly warned that the federal exchange had significant problems. Insurers complained that during tests of the exchange there were difficulties with transmissions to insurers, with insurers not receiving all necessary data about individuals enrolling in plans during tests.”

Tennessee Democratic Party: State Should Have Created Its Own Exchange

Against the backdrop of all this, of course, is the federal shutdown. Gov. Bill Haslam recently lamented that the travails of the federal Obamacare exchange should have provided a publicity coup for Republican opponents of the president’s signature policy initiative. Instead, the federal shutdown has been receiving most of the media’s attention, with much of the focus on the perceived intransigence of GOP lawmakers in Washington pressing for a delay in implementation of the Affordable Care Act by refusing to approve a budget.

“The health care plan is stumbling a little coming out of the gate, there’s difficulties — the president hasn’t had the best last two months of his tenure. And this should be a good time for us,” Haslam told reporters in Nashville Oct. 4. “Instead, all the conversation is about the government shutdown, and people are going to, I think, lay a portion of that blame on Republicans.”

Brandon Puttbrese, spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, said the state’s Republicans share blame for Obamacare’s exchange failures, too — or at least for Tennesseans having to subject themselves to the federal government’s handling of it.

Giving over responsibility to the Obama administration for developing and running the ACA insurance exchange in Tennessee was a “missed opportunity” for the Haslam administration, Puttbrese said. Retaining local government control is usually preferable to the federal government managing programs, and Haslam should have resisted handing the reins over to Washington, he said.

“Former Sen. Bill Frist (a Republican) was one of the first to come out and advocate for a state exchange,” Puttbrese said. “We have some of the best minds in health care in Tennessee. It seems silly to punt to the federal level.”

Republicans: No Surprise Here, Obamacare a Mess

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, agreed that the feds have a long history of conducting programs poorly, and said the Obamacare exchange will likely be no different.

But be that as it may, Norris said, “it’s a federal program and it needs to be administered by the federal government, unfortunately.”

“They’re not going to do very well at it, but they’ve got to fix it,” he said.

Norris was among most of the state Senate GOP supermajority who last week signed a letter to President Obama accusing him of using the federal shutdown “to intimidate opponents of Obamacare into capitulating and selling out their constituents – constituents who want the Affordable Care Act repealed and replaced.”

Michelle Willard and Mark Engler contributed to this report.