‘Alpha teams’ formed to address problems with ObamaCare site
By Justin Sink and Elise Viebeck - 10/23/13 05:49 PM ET
The White House and insurance companies are creating “alpha teams” that will work to address the corrupted enrollment data that is being produced by the ObamaCare website.
Senior administration officials, including White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, met with 14 executives from the nation's largest insurance companies on Wednesday to discuss how the geek squads would be deployed.
The White House meeting gave insurance companies a chance to vent about the ObamaCare site, which has come nowhere close to the user-friendly shopping experience that was promised.
The meeting featured a "candid discussion on the challenges facing the exchange," according to Cynthia Michener, a spokeswoman for Aetna.
"We hope this dialogue continues until the major problems are fixed," she said.
A spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a trade association that represents the nation's health insurance industry, characterized the meeting as "positive and productive."
"The participants discussed the ongoing technical challenges in the federal marketplace and what needs to be done to fix these issues and improve the enrollment process for consumers," AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said.
The problems for the ObamaCare site seem to be coming at all stages of the enrollment process.
Many people navigating to HealthCare.gov have struggled to create an account that would allow them to review insurance plans.
But insurers say there are also troubles for those consumers who have successfully navigated the website's front-end glitches and enrolled in coverage.
The ObamaCare site generates standardized forms — called "834 transmissions" — detailing the personal information of those who purchase insurance through the exchanges. That information is then transmitted to insurance companies.
But insurers say many of those forms are coming in with jumbled data and errors.
In one instance reported by The Wall Street Journal, one enrollee’s two dependents were categorized as spouses — leaving the impression of a polygamist family.
"One of the problems that has been identified and that is being worked on is that stage towards the end when information is provided to insurers," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.
The problems with the ObamaCare site have prompted many insurers to manually check every new application that comes in.
But with participation in the exchanges expected to grow as the deadline to enroll approaches, companies are worried they won’t be able to keep pace.
The White House said that the newly formed alpha teams would work together to "correct challenges as soon as we see them."
Participants from the insurance companies, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), and CGI — the federal contractor behind the ObamaCare website — will meet virtually to address the lingering technical issues.
Both the administration and insurance companies hope the alpha teams can quickly address the underlying technical challenges.
The White House and the insurance companies were often at loggerheads during the debate over the healthcare reform law.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) famously blasted insurers as "villains" in 2009. And in 2010, facing rising healthcare premiums in some states, the White House released a report blasting the industry for paying its CEOs up to $24 million each per year.
AHIP, meanwhile, has persistently fought the tax increases that were included in the healthcare law.
The two sides are coming together now to try and save the ObamaCare portal, which could bring millions of new customers to the insurers.
If technical experts are unable to iron out the bugs, that could mean insurers wouldn't be able to automate the millions of applications expected under the law. Companies could be forced to hire significant numbers of new workers to deal with the issue, an expense that is likely to increase insurance costs.
Even worse, if errors with 834 transmissions go undetected, consumers could be enrolled in the wrong type of insurance — leading to problems when they attempt to use it.
Carney on Wednesday said the technical glitches were "obviously an issue of great interest to" insurers.
Still, the White House insisted it was doing "everything possible to address the technical issues to ensure that all the American people who need it can purchase affordable health coverage."