IRS offers hint at how many Americans have been able to use HealthCare.gov successfully


The Obama administration has said that it probably will take until the end of November to fix most of HealthCare.gov’s problems. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
October 26, 2013

Despite the technical problems plaguing many of the new health insurance Web sites, the federal government has delivered 330,000 premium subsidy calculations to people who have gotten deep enough into the system to find out whether they qualify for financial help, the Internal Revenue Service said Saturday.

The disclosure offers a hint of how many people might be successful in using the online marketplaces, which opened Oct. 1 amid widespread technical difficulties that prevented many people from accessing them.

But it is likely that the number of people who were able to enroll in coverage is far lower. Obama administration officials have declined to say how many consumers have signed up for insurance, saying it will provide that number in mid-November.

It is part of a trickle of information that has begun to emerge from the administration since the Web sites’ debut. The sites are the main portal for millions of uninsured people to sign up for insurance under the nation’s new health-care law, which requires most Americans to be covered starting next year or face a fine.

The sites are supposed to allow the uninsured and those with private insurance not provided by their jobs to easily browse prices, find out whether they qualify for Medicaid or government subsidies, and enroll in health plans that will take effect Jan. 1. But many people were initially stymied by long wait times and frequent error messages, unable to even create accounts, and since then more serious problems have occurred.

A look at the consumer's route through the HealthCare.gov website and the potential failure points.

Most problematic has been the online marketplace being maintained by the federal government, HealthCare.gov, which serves people in 36 states. The rest of the states are running their own exchanges and have experienced varying degrees of technical difficulty.

The information about subsidy determinations was released by the IRS because it is one of about half a dozen federal agencies that must verify information consumers enter on the marketplaces, also called exchanges. The agency databases are connected to state and insurance company databases through a complex network called the “data hub.”

The hub is one part of the overall system that appears to be working well. An official with Kentucky’s state-run exchange reported that 92 percent of its applicants have had information verified through the hub, according to a Department of Health and Human Services blog post Saturday.

The data hub was built by the contracting firm Quality Software Services, a Columbia-based company owned by UnitedHealth Group. The Obama administration announced Friday that QSSI would take on a new role as HealthCare.gov’s general contractor, overseeing efforts to fix the Web sites’ problems.

In addition, the IRS’s technology supporting the health-care law is working well, IRS spokesman Terry Lemon said. The IRS is receiving about 80,000 data requests through the hub each day, he said, and “the requests are being processed within seconds.”

The fact that the hub connects so many databases, including the Department of Homeland Security, has prompted privacy concerns, including from immigrant advocacy groups.

Late Friday, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement issued a memo affirming that it would not try to find and deport illegal immigrants whose statuses could be inferred from information they enter into the marketplace.

That has been a worry for many families, said Jennifer Ng’andu, health policy director for the National Council of La Raza.

People in the country illegally are not permitted to apply for subsidies available to Americans to help them pay for their premiums. But in many cases, they are the ones who are applying for health coverage for legal residents and U.S. citizens in their families.

The memo affirmed that “if they’re applying in good faith, they shouldn’t have to worry about the consequences. Because they’re doing what they’re supposed to do under the law, which is to get everyone else in their family covered,” Ng’andu said.

The Web site problems have created worries among many of the 19 million Americans who bought health coverage on the private market but have been told by their insurance companies that their plans will be terminated by the end of the year because of the health-care law.

Most will have to choose a new plan by Dec. 15 — one that includes an array of benefits mandated by the law, such as maternity care. But choosing a new plan could be difficult without a functioning insurance marketplace.

On Friday, the Obama administration said that it probably will take until the end of November to fix most of HealthCare.gov’s problems, potentially leaving these people two weeks to find new coverage.

That could result in some consumers getting “caught between their policy expiring at the end of the year and them not being able to sign up quickly enough” to get coverage that will pick up Jan. 1, said Gerald Kominski, director of the Center for Health Policy and Research at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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