Signing up for Obamacare could someday take as little as 10 minutes

February 26

With five weeks to go until the end of open enrollment, the White House still has a lot of work ahead if it wants to meet the Congressional Budget Office's initial target of 7 million Obamacare signups. New government numbers released Tuesday suggest the administration is a little over halfway to that goal, though officials have sought to temper those expectations.

To further boost adoption, the administration is now turning directly to some of the private entrepreneurs who responded to Healthcare.gov's botched rollout with solutions of their own. And in some cases that's meant a much smoother and less time-consuming enrollment experience. While enrollees have largely signed up for health care plans through the federal marketplace or one of the state-based exchanges, they are about to be able to choose from a number of third-party registration services that plug right into the government's data hub.

The new push includes Health Sherpa, a Web site that began as a comparison tool for frustrated visitors to  Healthcare.gov. The initial version of the site let users enter their Zip codes and other information to learn what plans were available in their area. Its creators stressed that it was designed strictly for research purposes, and Health Sherpa advised visitors to check the actual exchanges for accurate information on premiums and subsidies. Signing up for a plan from Health Sherpa's Web site was impossible.

That's all changing, say Health Sherpa co-founders George Kalogeropoulous and Ning Liang. In November, the Department of Health and Human Services met with them to explore how to turn sites like theirs into a "modular" system -- where third parties could sit on top of the federal data hub and act as another online storefront for Obamacare.

Now, the integration is complete — making it possible to sign up for Obamacare using the Health Sherpa's Web site. Unlike Healthcare.gov, which was criticized for making visitors enter much of their personal information before verifying their subsidy eligibility and then showing them available plans, Health Sherpa  allows people to window-shop without entering much more than their Zip code, age and income.

"We've reduced the sign-up time by a third to a half," said Kalogeropolous. "The verification process works through a shortened version of the Healthcare.gov flow that we partnered with [the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services] on."

Health Sherpa still sends visitors to Healthcare.gov to verify their subsidy. But once that stage is completed, said Liang, the system sends them back. Eventually, HHS intends to release an API that will eliminate that step altogether, so that enrollees will never need to see the Obamacare site. What is now a 30-minute process on Health Sherpa could shrink to 10 minutes or less for the majority of straightforward applications in the future, the founders said.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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