Local and State News

Obamacare Marketplace Rollout Illuminates Failings, Public Demand

By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
File photo

If you’ve taken the time to visit healthcare.gov, Obamacare’s online entrance to the federal health insurance marketplace, chances are your computer screen seized up before you ventured far.

Chances also are that you lack the perseverance of local health care economist Lynn Bailey, who has attempted to enroll in Obamacare through healthcare.gov every business day since it launched on Oct. 1, but does so with a bemused detachment that only a scholar could muster in the face of such a bureaucratic mess.

“I’m nowhere near panicked, and I haven’t hit annoyed yet,” Bailey deadpans. “To me, this is sort of curious.”

As she sees it, three challenges have hamstrung healthcare.gov: a higher than anticipated volume of traffic; software failures on the front end that bar visitors from establishing required shopping accounts; and software failures on the back end that prevent accurate customer information from being transmitted to the insurers, begetting further inaccurate correspondence between buyer and seller.

The New York Times on Saturday cited a source familiar with the construction of healthcare.gov’s information processing system saying that 70 percent of its repairs are complete, but remaining fixes could take “as little as two weeks or as much as a couple of months.” Other unnamed sources said it might take longer.

Maybe the delay will give South Carolina’s insurers time to address another of Bailey’s worries. She says that many of the health care provider networks on offer are lacking, and she points to BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, easily the most recognizable health insurance brand for South Carolinians, by way of example.

Bailey says that while BlueCross’ provider network for Midlands residents is fairly comprehensive, residents of other regions might be shocked to see some of the state’s most reputable facilities — such as the Greenville Hospital System, Spartanburg Regional Medical System, McLeod Health in the Pee Dee, and the Medical University of South Carolina hospital in Charleston — are not included. Also not included are out-of-state health facilities in Charlotte, Augusta and Savannah that serve large swaths of border-dwelling South Carolinians.

But the insurers do appear to be expanding their networks, Bailey says.

Two glitch-ridden weeks since the site’s launch, representatives of several nonprofits that are working to help South Carolinians access affordable health care through President Obama’s signature legislation say they have yet to hear of anyone in the state successfully purchasing a policy through the website.

“We’ve fallen back to the paper application, helping people to complete that and asking that when they get a response, they bring it in and we’ll help them go through it,” says Wanda Pearson, director of Cooperative Ministries in Columbia.

“Quite honestly we’re not sure what that is going to look like, because the turnaround period is two weeks and so far we haven’t waited long enough to see what comes back from that process,” Pearson says.

York Glover of Eau Claire Cooperative Health said Monday that he and other counselors trained to assist with Obamacare enrollment are still reaching out to the public, especially the uninsured.

“Whatever we’ve got to do — that’s my motto,” he says, after reeling off a list of church events, civic festivals and libraries through which his team is trying to reach people.

But, as criticism from quarters both hostile and friendly to Obamacare floods into the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the feds appear to be scrambling through the government shutdown.

Shelli Quenga with the Palmetto Project says a toll-free 24-hour federal call center (800-318-2596) is getting the job done for consumers. “The operators there are able to skip over the setting-up-your-account-with-email step, so they’ve rerouted the process so you can use the toll-free number and do everything through there,” Quenga says.

Shoppers can also go to the recently erected healthcare.gov/find-premium-estimates to browse specific plans and premiums available in their state and county, Quenga said. This site within the main site does not factor in subsidies for which a consumer might qualify; however, it does offer estimates of what size income might qualify a family or individual for that financial assistance.

Like many a disappointed Obamacare supporter over the past two weeks, Eau Claire’s Glover points to larger than expected public interest in healthcare.gov as a silver lining.

“It’s everybody,” he says. “That’s the thing that surprised me, but it’s also the thing that made me realize that what we’re doing is important, however this is going to work out. From a 22-year-old single mother who is in school to a 63-year-old retiree that was a cancer survivor but no longer has insurance — it’s everybody.”

As Obamacare advocates frequently remind the public, the deadline for buying health insurance and avoiding a federal penalty is still distant — Feb. 15.

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