D.C.’s health exchange is still hampered by delays, glitches 11 months after launch

Robert McCartney
Columnist September 3

While Democratic partisans tout the latest conventional wisdom that Obamacare is finally going strong, the experience of many ordinary people who apply for it says otherwise.

The ongoing delays and irritation that consumers endure while navigating the District’s health insurance exchange offer a window into the reality on the street.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Local health insurance brokers, who have a front-row view of the obstacles, say the District’s exchange continues to suffer from technical bugs on the Web site and poor communication with insurance companies. They said it’s maddeningly difficult to fix problems once they arise.

“It’s been a tremendously frustrating and laborious experience,” said Steve Nearman, a broker and financial adviser, who has placed nearly 100 cases for clients on D.C. Health Link.

“I made excuses for them for the first three months, because it was unprecedented demand, but now we’re in September,” he said. “I just don’t know why things aren’t getting quicker.”

My column last week about a Harvard-educated lawyer who wasted months trying to get insurance via the District’s exchange triggered a spurt of detailed e-mails from others complaining of similar difficulties.

I don’t write this to bash the Affordable Care Act. Far from it.

Like the brokers and almost all who wrote me, I strongly support the health law and value its benefits. I ask merely that it function properly.

“There are good things about it, but it’s being ruined by poor execution, not only at the federal but now on the state level,” Robert Poli, president of the Insurance Marketing Center in Rockville, said.

The District was supposed to be a rare bright spot for the health law. Its Web site was one of only four that didn’t crash on opening day in October. The city has performed better than Maryland, which is replacing its site after notorious problems.

Still, my inbox suggests the District still has much to fix. Here’s a sampling of horror stories:

■ Catherine Shaw, a retiree who lives in Georgetown, applied for coverage July 2, but “some glitch” prevented her income information from entering the system. She reapplied last month, only to be stymied by a conflict with her first application. She applied a third time, but said she was told there is still is “no known date as to when this process would be completed.”

■ Amy Dara Hochberg, a yoga teacher in Northwest, said it required four months and “numerous phone calls” to get coverage in the spring. When insurance was finally activated, she was charged for all of April even though only five days remained in the month. She said the problems “cost me time without health care coverage when I needed it, energy that took me away from my work and life, and money lost on the April premium.”

■ Amy Muhlberg, a government relations consultant who lives near Eastern Market, had to buy expensive coverage under the federal COBRA plan for March after the District exchange improperly denied her application. She was the wrong person to rebuff. As a former staff member on a Senate committee that considered the ACA, Muhlberg knew precisely what it required. She took the case to an administrative law hearing before it was cleared up.

“What happened to me was annoying, but I had the resources to suck it up,” Muhlberg, who has a PhD in biochemistry, said. “What truly bothered me was that there were other people out there that this happened to who did not have the resources I had.”

What can be done? Poli, whose company works with about 300 brokers who have dealt with the District’s system, and Nearman offered some constructive suggestions.

First, continue to upgrade the exchange’s Web site. Far too much information goes astray, and it’s too difficult to make updates or fixes.

Second, do more to educate the exchange staff, insurance company personnel and the public about how the process works.

Third, shorten the delay between passing an application from the exchange to an insurance company, and sending the individual the bill to pay to complete the sign-up process.

There’s little time to spare. The volume of work is going to jump soon. A new open enrollment period begins in November, and the Web site starts handling companies’ group insurance plans in 2015.

“I don’t think D.C. is ready,” Poli said.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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