The Washington Post

State insurance boards frustrated with Obamacare technical glitches

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Commissioners responsible for overseeing insurance industries in states relying on the federal government to run health-care exchanges are hearing from consumers who can’t log into Web sites, and some aren’t hearing back when they call Washington for answers.

At the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services says its Web site,, is working better every day. More than 700,000 applications have been completed, many through the Web site, according to a department spokeswoman.

HHS is pushing to enroll the uninsured in person, as well as online. The department has held more than 500 events for the health insurance marketplace since Oct. 1, one source said. And HHS is relying on the more than 60,000 agents and brokers who have been trained to sign people up, along with 12,000 certified application specialists and 2,200 so-called “navigators.”

“People are getting online, they are getting enrolled, they are completing applications, and we are seeing improvement,” said Gary Cohen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. “We have made sure that people know that there are a number of ways to fill out an application, get it completed, go through the shopping experience and ultimately get enrolled.”

But in a series of interviews with insurance commissioners in several states, many told GovBeat that they weren’t getting answers when they call HHS. States that declined to set up their own exchanges are worried that some of their citizens won’t be able to sign up in time, though states running their own exchanges have had more success.

“They’re trying to get the exchange fixed and they don’t have a date or any kind of estimate on when it’ll be fully functional. There’s not lots of information that will be free-flowing,” said Tom Hirsig, Wyoming’s insurance commissioner.

Sandy Praeger, who took over as Kansas Insurance Commissioner after Kathleen Sebelius — now the Secretary of Health and Human Services — ran for governor, said her staff hasn’t heard back after seeking answers to questions about residents who sign up for high-risk pools. Praeger said her office has had a good working relationship with HHS, but that the state stopped enrolling people in high-risk pools when it appeared Kansas could be on the financial hook for those pools.

On the other hand, Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said his state’s exchange has gone smoothly. Washington established its own exchange, rather than relying on the federal government. Washington has enrolled 35,000 residents in the state exchange, Kreidler said, and applications for coverage of another 69,822 people have been completed.

“The federal hub is working from our perspective, for our interactions validating incomes and eligibility and the like,” Kreidler said.

Almost every state relying on the federal exchange reported calls from residents frustrated by the site. Jilene Whitby, a spokeswoman for Utah Insurance Commissioner Todd Kiser, said her office was asking residents to wait two weeks to try again. Arkansas Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford said he was reminding people they can sign up using paper applications and by telephone.

Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services, said his state had held weekly conference calls with HHS. Buhs said the office had seen an increase in the number of calls from residents trying to get covered, but that HHS had not told the state how many people had enrolled.

“We have been inquiring about enrollment figures specific to Michigan and have, to this point, received no information,” Buhs said.

Montana Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen, a Democrat, told a legislative committee earlier this week that the problems with the federal exchange proved she was right when she urged the state to come up with its own model.

“You’re not supposed to say ‘I told you so,’ but I really have to say that at this time,” Lindeen told the panel, according to the Helena Independent Record.

Still, Lindeen added she’s not getting answers from Health and Human Services officials in Washington.

Insurance commissioners accustomed to dealing with complex arcana say they feel sympathy for federal officials working to fix the website.

“It’s been rocky. My sympathies to Kathleen,” said Praeger, Sebelius’s successor. “I would have been surprised if it had gone smoothly.”

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.

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