New memos show limits of paper applications under new health-care law

(Mike Segar/Reuters) (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released several internal Obama administration memos Monday suggesting the paper applications consumers have been using to enroll under the new health-care law has given them a false illusion of progress.

The notes, written as part of a Health and Human Services Department "War Room" effort to address the problems plaguing HealthCare.gov, notes that even as officials urged Americans to enroll through paper applications this route faced the same obstacle as the troubled Web site.

“The same portal is used to determine eligibility no matter how the application is submitted (paper, online)," reads the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight memo from an Oct. 11 meeting. "The paper applications allow people to feel like they are moving forward in the process and provides another option; at the end of the day, we are all stuck in the same queue.”

HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said in a statement that the documents--produced in response to a request sent by the panel to 11 of the major contractors involved in building the federal health insurance marketplace--did not reflect the current status of the government's enrollment system.

“These are notes, not official meeting minutes, and they are several weeks old.  We’ve made significant progress since then as we have undergone a tech surge and worked to identify, diagnose and fix issues," Peters said. "We have been clear for weeks now that processing paper applications uses HealthCare.gov -- but bypasses the front-end portal involving creating an account. In addition, we are checking items off our punch list every day and believe that by the end of November the system will work smoothly for the vast majority of users. We are processing paper applications every day, and consumers are receiving eligibility determinations from these applications.”

People have been receiving eligibility determinations for several weeks from paper applications, Peters said, adding that consumers can also sign up through the government's call center or in person with the assistance of navigators.

Notes from an Oct. 15 meeting show the paper forms emerged as a preferred alternative to both the Web site and call centers by the middle of the month: “Navigators are seeing people very frustrated and walking away, so they are turning to paper applications to protect their reputations as people in the communities who can help, even though paper applications will not have a quicker result necessarily.”

Despite these problems, according to the notes, by Oct. 21 the group is told,  “[W]e are to instruct Navigators to use paper applications rather than go through the call center.” That same memo notes that Serco, one of the contractors handling the forms, “had over 3,000 applications submitted by the end of last week in paper form.”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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