Posted: 1:03 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25, 2013
By Phil Galewitz
The troubled federal health insurance exchange will be fixed by the end of November -- two weeks before the Dec. 15 enrollment deadline for coverage to take effect in January, Obama administration officials said Friday.
“Healthcare.gov is fixable,” said Jeffrey Zients, the former Obama budget official and entrepreneur who has been charged with overseeing the work to repair the online federal marketplace. “We are confident that each week, the site will get better, and by the end of November, healthcare.gov will operate smoothly for vast majority of users.”
Zients told reporters Friday that dozens of things need to be fixed to enable consumers to shop and enroll on the website that is the door to health coverage in 36 states for people who don’t get insurance through their jobs. Fourteen other states have their own online exchanges, most of which are functional.
Millions of consumers have been unable to use healthcare.gov since its Oct. 1 launch due to software and hardware problems. Just one third of users trying to complete an application on the website have been able to do so, Zients said.
Nonetheless, about 350,000 people have been able to complete the process of determining if they are eligible for federal subsidies or Medicaid, the state-federal health program for the poor, administration officials said. Users have to complete a lengthy online application for that before they can begin shopping for coverage.
Though people need to sign up by Dec. 15 for coverage beginning Jan. 1, open enrollment runs through the end of March.
Zients said the Department of Health and Human Services has hired Quality Software Systems Inc., or QSSI, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, to serve as a general contractor overseeing all the fixes to the site. UnitedHealthcare, the nation’s largest insurer, is also owned by UnitedHealth Group.
QSSI helped build the federal data hub for the online marketplace, which helps check a user's identity, income and residency status. It was not disclosed how much the company would get paid for the new assignment.
“It makes sense for them because they are familiar with the complexity of the system and they have done a good job already ... and they have the expertise to address these problems right now,” Zients said.
Among the major goals is to ensure the website provides accurate information to private insurers about the people signing up for coverage, Zients said.
CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said users who have not been able to complete their applications on the website should wait to get an email explaining how to move forward. “As we work though the issues, we will be communicating directly to consumers involved,” she said.
Zients started his new assignment on Monday. Last month, Obama announced that Zients would take over next year as director of the National Economic Council, becoming the president's chief economic adviser.
Zients is providing short-term advice, assessments and recommendations to a team that officials say has been working around the clock to fix healthcare.gov.
After a career in private industry, Zients joined the administration in 2009 as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and the nation's first chief performance officer. He also served two stints as Office of Management and Budget's acting director and led an effort to streamline government and save money by selling off unused or underused real estate.
Zients was acting OMB director from January 2012 through April 2013, when the Senate confirmed Sylvia Mathews Burwell for the director's post.
Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communications organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.