District’s online insurance marketplace also hampered by glitches, consumers say


WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 18: Brian Beary, 38, is a foreign journalist working in the United States on a visa. He found out he will pay substantially more for his insurance policy on the DC exchange. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

On the eve of the Monday deadline for District residents to sign up for health insurance that takes effect Jan. 1, the city’s new online insurance exchange has run into so many technical problems that its staff is combing through incomplete applications looking for people who were stymied from buying insurance and are now running out of time.

The total number of people who have run into problems trying to buy health insurance from the District’s online insurance marketplace set up under the Affordable Care Act is unclear, partly because officials say the problems have made it impossible, for now, to collect complete data about successful enrollments.

But in an interview, Mila Kofman, executive director of the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority, said her staff is going through online applications and taking other steps to make it easier for people to buy insurance through the exchange, which also handled insurance sign-ups for congressional staff and some lawmakers.

“Essentially, the goal is making sure no consumer falls through the cracks,” Kofman said.

She acknowledged glitches in DC Health Link, the city’s marketplace, but characterized them as minor. The Web site has worked relatively smoothly for small businesses, Kofman said.

Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, DC Health Link is part of the network of government-sponsored marketplaces offering mandatory insurance coverage for individuals, families and small businesses. It is different from the federal government’s national exchange, whose bug-filled debut has damaged President Obama’s approval ratings.

Problems have surfaced in several state-run marketplaces as well. Maryland’s insurance exchange has become a hot topic in the governor’s race between Democratic rivals Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who oversaw its rollout, and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who has criticized Brown over the system’s lapses.

The District’s insurance exchange has not been immune to the software problems that have affected the national insurance exchange and others.

Skip Moskey wanted to shop around on the District’s new online insurance marketplace, hoping to save some money on a new policy. But after encountering computer glitches and a bureaucratic runaround, he felt, as he put it, as if he were climbing the Great Wall of China.

Jacqueline Young said her odyssey on the District’s insurance exchange began in mid-November while she was attempting to sign up a family member. Several online applications kept getting mysteriously deleted, she said. Then, after humans interceded, Young found herself faxing in payroll stubs over and over to verify her relative’s income.

After appealing to a District Council member for help, she succeeded last week in enrolling her relative despite a system she described as “breathtakingly incompetent.”

“My view is it shouldn’t be a work in progress. It should be working because it went live,” said Young, a District resident who works for the National Labor Relations Board. “I’m a big defender of the Affordable Care Act. And I’m furious.”

In the District, only a small fraction of the more than 60,000 people who need health insurance have submitted applications, and the system has been unable to collect data on how many have successfully enrolled, meaning they paid for insurance, Kofman said. She said the exchange may not have the final numbers until January.

But her staff has been going through every incomplete online application to determine whether computer problems prevented people from buying insurance for individuals or families. As of Thursday, staff members had also processed 982 paper applications submitted by people who could not complete applications online, though about 200 of those were missing information and Kofman’s staff was working to help complete them.

The hours of DC Health Link’s call center have also been extended; it will be open Sunday between 8 a.m. and midnight.

Kofman said Friday that DC Health Link officials were still reviewing the impact of the Obama administration’s decision Thursday to relax the new law’s rules for millions of consumers whose individual insurance policies have been canceled. The administration has said that people can buy bare-bones policies or avoid a requirement that most Americans have health coverage. Such plans, known as “catastrophic” coverage, are available on DC Health Link for people who cannot afford more comprehensive coverage, Kofman said.

The District’s exchange, which opened Oct. 1, offers individuals and families 34 different types of policies from three insurance carriers: Aetna, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, and Kaiser Permanente. Open enrollment for families and individuals will continue until March 31. Small businesses can enroll at any time.

As of Dec. 10 — the most recent available data — DC Health Link had received 5,603 completed online applications. Of those, 3,300 filled out the longer application form to see whether they would qualify for subsidized health insurance either through the expanded eligibility for Medicaid coverage or tax credits. That’s about 5.3 percent of the estimated 42,000 uninsured people and 20,000 people considered “underinsured,” officials said.

“If you judge our success or whether the Affordable Care Act is working as an overnight sensation, no one is going to be successful,” Kofman said. “It’s going to be a process.”

But several people who encountered problems with DC Health Link — including some who strongly backed the passage of Obamacare — say their experience has challenged their faith in government’s ability to do things right. Others have been bothered by Obama’s promise that citizens would be able to keep their insurance plans if they liked them.

“I think President Obama is personally responsible for this very poor rollout of his signature law,” said Brian Beary, an Irish citizen who is in the United States on a visa as a working journalist.

Beary said the District’s online insurance exchange worked well enough, with only minor wait times. But he was chagrined to learn that he would be paying about 73 percent more in his premiums for a policy that is comparable to the one he has now. Assuming that, at 38, he remains healthy, he estimates that he would be spending $1,500 more a year. Beary was so annoyed by the difference that he thought about going without insurance.

“I briefly thought about it, but that was in a fit of rage after the whole thing about Obama saying you keep the plan you want. But I realized that would be cutting off my nose to spite my face,” Beary said.

Richard VanMetter, a retired Eastman Kodak employee who is now a self-employed consultant, also ran into hassles on DC Health Link, including multiple, unsuccessful attempts to verify his residency — despite having lived, voted and registered vehicles in the District for more than 14 years, he said. After The Washington Post wrote about his problems, the exchange’s staff got in touch and lent a hand. VanMetter said that after he received e-mails saying he had been signed up, the Web site continued to tell him that his application was “approved” and “in process.”

“What this site is telling me is a mixed bag,” VanMetter said. Late last week, he was still hoping to hear from the insurance carrier to be sure.

Moskey also discovered that he would have to pay more than twice as much a month for a new policy. Moskey, who has a $330-a-month health-care policy with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, found that the closest available policy would cost him $667 a month. The biggest difference between the two plans, he said, was that his deductible would drop from $1,500 to $1,400.

So he decided to apply for a tax credit, or subsidy, to lower his premium. He filled out all the boxes online, including data that required information from his tax returns.

After a frustrating round of visits to the Web site followed up by telephone calls, Moskey discovered that he would qualify for a subsidy. But, he was told, he would also have to start the online process over again to receive it.

“I said you have got to be kidding. You expect me to go back on the Web site?” said Moskey, who is self-employed after a career in nonprofit management. “It’s like Catch-22.”

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