Even though the country has had a year of the Affordable Care Act under its belt already, the next open enrollment period is already looking like it’s going to turn out a lot like last year’s.
Thursday, the powerful House Oversight Committee under Rep. Darrell Issa will hold a hearing looking at the growing disaster of Obamacare exchanges, which are still facing the same problems they were last year, despite the House leadership’s warnings.
During the first open enrollment period, the federal Obamacare website was a disaster in almost every way. Customers could barely use HealthCare.gov for months after it launched. The back-end of the website, used to send information between the administration and insurance companies, has still not been completed. Verification systems went unbuilt. And this week, the independent General Accountability Office reports that the federal website wasn’t secure when it launched and still isn’t secure as of Wednesday.
Issa’s hearing is set to focus on CMS’ failure to get HealthCare.gov — and the state exchanges, which CMS had final approval over — together in time for last year. It’s especially pressing, because at this point, it doesn’t look like this year’s going to be much smoother for the administration.
Andy Slavitt, the new second-in-command at Obaamcare administrator the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Serivices, has already warned House Republicans that the second HealthCare.gov enrollment period will be “bumpy.”
It’s no wonder. The administration is still building part of the website’s infrastructure and hasn’t yet finished verifying last year’s batch of applications. Now officials are tasked with trying to attract even more customers, while simultaneously making sure they keep last year’s sign-ups enrolled.
The administration tried to make things easier by offering auto-enrollment, but because premium rates and subsidy benchmarks are in flux, customers who keep the same plan could be in store for huge cost hikes. It’s more likely that customers will need to enroll all over again, making the enrollment period even more chaotic.
And on top of that, HealthCare.gov’s adding several new states as well. Oregon’s and Nevada’s Obamacare exchanges failed so spectacularly that both have decided it would be less expensive to move into HealthCare.gov rather than start over and build a second state-run exchange. At fault there: states official and contractors who wasted millions — and CMS, for overseeing the debacles.
Eventually, Tavenner will likely have to answer how CMS continued approving funding and work on the two exchange websites when they were clearly far behind. Both Nevada and Oregon are embroiled in extensive lawsuits. In the midst of a gubernatorial election, Oregon state officials are engaged in a he-said-she-said court battle with its former contractor, Oracle. Meanwhile, Nevada and its former contractor, Xerox, are facing multiple class action lawsuits from angry customers and insurance agents.
Lawmakers are expected to grill Tavenner on the past costs from these failures — Oregon’s $300 million down the drain, for instance — but even more will pile up this year. The states’ failure means over 100,000 Obamacare customers will have to re-enroll all over again — complete with navigators, insurance agents, application assisters and their salaries. Oregon, much-lambasted for its twee Obamacare ads last fall, now needs to advertise a new website entirely. (RELATED: Feds Drop $3.2 Million On Obamacare Ads In Oregon)
Meanwhile, outside the federal exchange, the states that kept working on their own websites are once again racing against the clock to get things ready. Massachusetts is hard put-upon to get what’s now its third try at an exchange finished in time, just like last year. Maryland’s second version will be staggering its launch, out of fear that the website could shut down due to high traffic, as it did last fall. And this week, Vermont shut down its website entirely so its new contractor can fix longstanding IT security weaknesses that have left customer information open to attack.
One year in, CMS still has a boatload of problems with state and federal Obamacare exchanges alike that all come back to the administration’s approval. After a sustained exodus of the Obama administration’s top Obamacare officials, Tavenner’s one of the last standing.