Even a Harvard-educated lawyer has ‘nightmare’ with D.C. health insurance site

Robert McCartney
Columnist August 27

Diana Daniels’s experience with the District’s health insurance Web site is the sort that gives government bureaucracy — and Obamacare — a bad reputation.

The Northwest Washington mom filed her online application for medical coverage for her two teenage daughters on June 4. The process supposedly requires three weeks at most.

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

No coverage materialized for nearly three months, despite Daniels’s numerous calls to D.C. Health Link trying to sort things out.

Daniels was told in mid-July that her application had been “escalated.” Still, nothing happened. The bureaucrats just kept saying that neither they nor anybody else could help.

“I was very patient, in my view, and I couldn’t get beyond the people who answer the phone bank,” said Daniels, who is insured separately.

After I inquired about Daniels’s case this week, I was told Wednesday that the glitch had been resolved at the end of last week. CareFirst, the insurance company issuing the policy, phoned Daniels on Wednesday to say the coverage had finally come through.

The timing is suspicious, obviously. But I can’t prove the media interest triggered the sudden solution.

It doesn’t matter, anyway. There’s no excuse for the delay, which even the exchange’s executive director admitted was “completely unacceptable.”

Because of the lag, Daniels was forced to buy a university health policy for her older daughter, Dana, 19. She needed coverage to be permitted to enroll this month for her sophomore year at Cornell.

Moreover, Diana Daniels is hardly the kind of person likely to have trouble handling a computer or navigating a bureaucracy.

Daniels, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was general counsel for 19 years of what was then this newspaper’s parent corporation, and she is used to pressing her case in complex negotiations. Currently, she’s a part-time trustee of mutual funds for the blue-chip Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs.

So you have to ask: If Diana Daniels can’t get the District’s health Web site to work, then how is an average person supposed to do so?

“I cannot be the only one in this health-care limbo,” Daniels said. “One wonders how others are coping with this bureaucratic nightmare.”

In fact, she’s not alone. Although the District has had a better experience than the embarrassment in Maryland, the city’s exchange has had its share of delays.

Critics of the Affordable Care Act point to such problems as evidence that President Obama’s health-care reforms are sure to fail. I have a different view.

The correct lesson to draw is that government needs to place a higher priority on efficiency and customer service. Otherwise, a jaded public will give up on extending benefits that people need, such as universal health care, but that the private sector can’t or won’t provide.

To her credit, Mila Kofman, executive director of the District’s Health Benefit Exchange Authority, seems to understand.

“No consumer should have to experience what Diana did,” Kofman said. “When I saw this, I was just horrified.”

While insisting that Daniels’s case was “very unusual” and just “slipped through the cracks,” Kofman promised a thorough investigation.

“This demonstrates to me that our process is not 100 percent foolproof,” Kofman said. “This type of information helps us on an ongoing basis to reassess everything we do and find ways to improve.”

Several people who work regularly with the District’s Web site said it has fixed many technical glitches this year and is usually quick to respond to complaints.

Not everyone is enthusiastic, however. An “enrollment assister” at a District nonprofit, who works with the health exchange to sign up customers, said it often takes two months or more to procure coverage.

“Almost every application we submit, it’s just become a reality that there’s going to be a problem here, a problem there, and you have to make calls,” the assister said.

The employee was barred by the health exchange from speaking to the media, and thus asked not to be identified.

According to Daniels, the CareFirst employee who called her Wednesday said the health exchange had been painfully slow to help. Daniels said the employee told her that CareFirst had been asking the exchange for her file in conference calls every other day since July 28, but to no avail.

“I think the people who manage these systems would have a lot better reception if they put themselves in the shoes of people who are having to deal with them,” Daniels said.

It’s a message that the many bureaucrats in our region should take to heart.

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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