District’s online insurance marketplace also hampered by glitches, consumers say

District’s online insurance marketplace also hampered by glitches, consumers say

By Fredrick Kunkle, Washington Post, Published: December 21

On the eve of the Monday deadline for District residents to sign up for health insurance that takes effect Jan. 1, the city’s new online insurance exchange has run into so many technical problems that its staff is combing through incomplete applications looking for people who were stymied from buying insurance and are now running out of time.

The total number of people who have run into problems trying to buy health insurance from the District’s online insurance marketplace set up under the Affordable Care Act is unclear, partly because officials say the problems have made it impossible, for now, to collect complete data about successful enrollments.

But in an interview, Mila Kofman , executive director of the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority, said her staff is going through online applications and taking other steps to make it easier for people to buy insurance through the exchange, which also handled insurance sign-ups for congressional staff and some lawmakers.

“Essentially, the goal is making sure no consumer falls through the cracks,” Kofman said.

She acknowledged glitches in DC Health Link, the city’s marketplace, but characterized them as minor. The Web site has worked relatively smoothly for small businesses, Kofman said.

Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, DC Health Link is part of the network of government-sponsored marketplaces offering mandatory insurance coverage for individuals, families and small businesses. It is different from the federal government’s national exchange, whose bug-filled debut has damaged President Obama’s approval ratings.

Problems have surfaced in several state-run marketplaces as well. Maryland’s insurance exchange has become a hot topic in the governor’s race between Democratic rivals Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who oversaw its rollout, and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who has criticized Brown over the system’s lapses.

The District’s insurance exchange has not been immune to the software problems that have affected the national insurance exchange and others.

Skip Moskey wanted to shop around on the District’s new online insurance marketplace, hoping to save some money on a new policy. But after encountering computer glitches and a bureaucratic runaround, he felt, as he put it, as if he were climbing the Great Wall of China.

Jacqueline Young said her odyssey on the District’s insurance exchange began in mid-November while she was attempting to sign up a family member. Several online applications kept getting mysteriously deleted, she said. Then, after humans interceded, Young found herself faxing in payroll stubs over and over to verify her relative’s income.

After appealing to a District Council member for help, she succeeded last week in enrolling her relative despite a system she described as “breathtakingly incompetent.”

“My view is it shouldn’t be a work in progress. It should be working because it went live,” said Young, a District resident who works for the National Labor Relations Board. “I’m a big defender of the Affordable Care Act. And I’m furious.”

In the District, only a small fraction of the more than 60,000 people who need health insurance have submitted applications, and the system has been unable to collect data on how many have successfully enrolled, meaning they paid for insurance, Kofman said. She said the exchange may not have the final numbers until January.

But her staff has been going through every incomplete online application to determine whether computer problems prevented people from buying insurance for individuals or families. As of Thursday, staff members had also processed 982 paper applications submitted by people who could not complete applications online, though about 200 of those were missing information and Kofman’s staff was working to help complete them.

The hours of DC Health Link’s call center have also been extended; it will be open Sunday between 8 a.m. and midnight.

Kofman said Friday that DC Health Link officials were still reviewing the impact of the Obama administration’s decision Thursday to relax the new law’s rules for millions of consumers whose individual insurance policies have been canceled. The administration has said that people can buy bare-bones policies or avoid a requirement that most Americans have health coverage. Such plans, known as “catastrophic” coverage, are available on DC Health Link for people who cannot afford more comprehensive coverage, Kofman said.

The District’s exchange, which opened Oct. 1, offers individuals and families 34 different types of policies from three insurance carriers: Aetna, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, and Kaiser Permanente. Open enrollment for families and individuals will continue until March 31. Small businesses can enroll at any time.

As of Dec. 10 — the most recent available data — DC Health Link had received 5,603 completed online applications. Of those, 3,300 filled out the longer application form to see whether they would qualify for subsidized health insurance either through the expanded eligibility for Medicaid coverage or tax credits. That’s about 5.3 percent of the estimated 42,000 uninsured people and 20,000 people considered “underinsured,” officials said.

“If you judge our success or whether the Affordable Care Act is working as an overnight sensation, no one is going to be successful,” Kofman said. “It’s going to be a process.”

But several people who encountered problems with DC Health Link — including some who strongly backed the passage of Obamacare — say their experience has challenged their faith in government’s ability to do things right. Others have been bothered by Obama’s promise that citizens would be able to keep their insurance plans if they liked them.

“I think President Obama is personally responsible for this very poor rollout of his signature law,” said Brian Beary, an Irish citizen who is in the United States on a visa as a working journalist.

Beary said the District’s online insurance exchange worked well enough, with only minor wait times. But he was chagrined to learn that he would be paying about 73 percent more in his premiums for a policy that is comparable to the one he has now. Assuming that, at 38, he remains healthy, he estimates that he would be spending $1,500 more a year. Beary was so annoyed by the difference that he thought about going without insurance.

“I briefly thought about it, but that was in a fit of rage after the whole thing about Obama saying you keep the plan you want. But I realized that would be cutting off my nose to spite my face,” Beary said.

Richard VanMetter, a retired Eastman Kodak employee who is now a self-employed consultant, also ran into hassles on DC Health Link, including multiple, unsuccessful attempts to verify his residency — despite having lived, voted and registered vehicles in the District for more than 14 years, he said. After The Washington Post wrote about his problems, the exchange’s staff got in touch and lent a hand. VanMetter said that after he received e-mails saying he had been signed up, the Web site continued to tell him that his application was “approved” and “in process.”

“What this site is telling me is a mixed bag,” VanMetter said. Late last week, he was still hoping to hear from the insurance carrier to be sure.

Moskey also discovered that he would have to pay more than twice as much a month for a new policy. Moskey, who has a $330-a-month health-care policy with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, found that the closest available policy would cost him $667 a month. The biggest difference between the two plans, he said, was that his deductible would drop from $1,500 to $1,400.

So he decided to apply for a tax credit, or subsidy, to lower his premium. He filled out all the boxes online, including data that required information from his tax returns.

After a frustrating round of visits to the Web site followed up by telephone calls, Moskey discovered that he would qualify for a subsidy. But, he was told, he would also have to start the online process over again to receive it.

“I said you have got to be kidding. You expect me to go back on the Web site?” said Moskey, who is self-employed after a career in nonprofit management. “It’s like Catch-22.”

Prosecutor suggests links between D.C. officials and contractor

Prosecutor suggests links between D.C. officials and contractor

By Ann E. Marimow and Mike DeBonis, Washington Post, Published: December 19

Law enforcement officials have discovered “connections and communications” between D.C. government officials and representatives of a company owned by the businessman at the center of a long-running investigation into the 2010 mayoral race.

The disclosure from U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. came in letters released Thursday between the federal prosecutor and D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan that provide a window into the state of the nearly three-year-old investigation.

For weeks, the two government lawyers have clashed over the release of thousands of e-mails and other documents related to the city’s decision to enter into a $7.5 million settlement with Jeffrey E. Thompson, the former head of D.C. Chartered Health Plan.

Thompson, according to court papers and interviews, is the alleged financier of an off-the-books $655,000 “shadow campaign” on behalf of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who announced this month that he is seeking a second term.

Investigators appear to be interested in what role, if any, Gray and his deputies played in the 2011 settlement.which his predecessor Adrian M. Fenty (D) had resisted.

Neither Thompson nor Gray has been charged with a crime, and the mayor has denied wrongdoing.

In sharply worded letters exchanged over the past five weeks, Nathan has refused to release a set of documents, citing attorney-client privilege. He has defended the 2011 settlement over reimbursement rates for dental care as aboveboard and an equitable deal for the city.

Nathan also offered to release the documents, he wrote, if Machen’s office could “show or describe to me a single scintilla of evidence that any person in the District government committed or facilitated an arguably illegal act” related to the settlement.

Machen has suggested that the battle over documents is an “obstacle” to closing the investigation.closing out the investigation that has led to guilty pleas from four people associated with Gray’s 2010 campaign. In one letter, Machen writes that Nathan may not be aware of the entire scope of the investigation.

“While the documents the District is withholding may not be incriminating on their face, when combined with information gathered by federal investigators, they may provide evidence of crimes,” Machen wrote in a Nov. 25 letter released Thursday in response to a public records request. Investigators, he said, have “identified connections and communications . . . that you likely do not know about.”

Nathan has maintained that Gray played no part in his decision to settle the Chartered claim. But Machen, in his Nov. 25 letter, accused Nathan of a “lapse of memory,” citing “numerous communications” obtained by investigators between Gray’s executive office and Nathan’s office on the settlement.

Nathan stood by his claim in a Dec. 5 reply: “You are not correct,” he wrote. “There are no e-mails or other documents reflecting any communication between the Mayor and me on this settlement before I sought his approval of the settlement.”

After the settlement was reached, Nathan said, there were further discussions about Chartered involving the mayor’s office that did not relate to the settlement.

“As you know,” Nathan wrote, “sometimes a busy official sending an e-mail to a colleague may not change the heading on a previous e-mail from that colleague while addressing an entirely different subject.”

In their latest correspondence dated Dec. 5, Nathan agreed to Machen’s revised request for a more limited set of documents related only to the Chartered settlement that include the mayor, any executive office employee and the Department of Health Care Finance.

The offices have yet to strike a deal.

Matthew Jones, a spokesman for Machen, said Thursday: “We have continued to have discussions and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to resolve this dispute short of litigation.”

Ted Gest, a spokesman for Nathan, said the office “continue[s] to have an active dialogue with the federal authorities to seek a reasonable compromise in the public interest.”

Hill staffers warned not to rely on info from ObamaCare exchange

December 11, 2013, 02:31 pm

Hill staffers warned not to rely on info from ObamaCare exchange

By Jonathan Easley

Capitol Hill staffers who signed up for ObamaCare through the Washington, D.C., healthcare exchange, called DC Health Link (DCHL), are being told to confirm their enrollments in person, and not to rely on data provided by the website.

The Hill obtained an email sent to staffers on Wednesday warning them, “it is essential that you confirm your coverage in DCHL through the Disbursing Office.”

“Do not rely on your ‘My Account’ page or other correspondence from DCHL,” the email reads.

“Please do not assume you are covered unless you have seen the confirmation letter from the Disbursing Office,” the email continues.

Capitol Hill workers had until Monday to sign up for healthcare in D.C., where members and their staffs are eligible for a generous employer healthcare subsidy from the government.

DC Health Link, the online healthcare portal for the District, has experienced a number of technical issues over the last few weeks.

According to the email obtained by The Hill, those staffers who were not able to enroll because of technical difficulties now have until Dec. 16 to sign up. The extension was granted because of problems with the website.

“If, during Open Season, you took steps to enroll in DCHL, but were not successfully enrolled and confirmed, and you notify the Disbursing Office of this by Dec. 16th, you will be provided with a ‘Special Enrollment Period’ to enroll through the DCHL, with a January 1, 2014 effective coverage date,” the email reads.

The Obama administration has been under pressure to guarantee that those who sign up for healthcare through the federal exchanges will be covered by Jan. 1.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is manually fixing thousands of flawed enrollment transmissions sent from HealthCare.gov to insurance companies in October and November.

After weeks of pressure from journalists, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said that as much as 25 percent of enrollment transmissions sent from the federal portal to insurers were either garbled or contained bad data.

Based on HHS’s enrollment figures, upwards of 30,000 applications might need to be re-evaluated before the end of the year.

The problem creates the need for federal health officials to reconcile individual enrollment records with a long list of insurers in a process one official described as "very intensive."

The process represents the next hurdle for the CMS as it seeks to ensure that every recent applicant at HealthCare.gov could use their coverage starting next year.

Without a fully functioning system, policyholders will encounter problems and could be unsure if they’re covered by the insurance they believe they’ve purchased, creating another firestorm for the administration.

D.C.’s online health exchange has “hundreds” of problem applications

D.C.’s online health exchange has “hundreds” of problem applications

By Lena H. Sun, Washington Post, Published: December 6

The District’s online health-insurance exchange is grappling with “hundreds” of problematic applications from shoppers unable to enroll in health plans because of system error messages, an exchange spokesman said Friday.

Exchange officials are in the process of identifying the account holders and contacting them, said Richard Sorian, a spokesman for DC Health Link. Most of the problems appear to stem from duplicate accounts that shoppers may have created inadvertently.

The exchange, DC Health Link, is where thousands of congressional staffers and members are shopping for coverage by their Monday open-enrollment deadline.

Exchange officials have addressed several technological issues since the Oct. 1 launch. But new ones have cropped up as people have used the online system, and others appear to be persisting.

Legal immigrants who don’t have credit cards, for example, are having trouble getting their identities verified, preventing them from enrolling online. Instead, they have to use paper applications, according to Selamawit Teka, one of seven “assisters” at Mary’s Center, a community health center in Petworth. Online enrollment has been working well, except for the credit card issue for legal immigrants, she said.

An earlier issue involved error messages that often occurred when shoppers were choosing a health plan. Instead of receiving a confirmation, they received an “Error 500” message. A fix was put in place the weekend before Thanksgiving, Sorian said.

Other shoppers are receiving error messages because they have created duplicate accounts. That may have happened when frustrated shoppers weren’t receiving confirmations.

“We think it’s happening less, but likely still happening,” Sorian said.

Others, such as Nicholas Lefevre, have been unable to have their issues resolved even with assistance from the exchange.

Lefevre, 62, figures he has tried to enroll at least 100 times since Web site’s launch. He has coverage through a preexisting condition insurance plan that will end Dec. 31. To avoid an insurance lapse, he needs to sign up by Dec. 15.

For the first two weeks, the system had problems verifying his identity. For three weeks after, it crashed whenever he entered his income information. (He has more than one source of income — a Social Security survivor benefit and some dividend and interest income). Call center staff members told him the problem was a “known bug.” He hasn’t been able to access his account since Nov. 6.

Lefevre has been contacting the exchange by e-mail or via the call center daily. After signing in, he receives the same “Error 500” message.

On Friday afternoon, he reached someone who tracked down his application and saw that it was “pending.” But Lefevre is still unable to log in to his account to select and buy a plan. He said the call center staff member acknowledged the error and said exchange officials “are fixing it,” an answer Lefevre has received repeatedly.

Interest in the District’s exchange has surged. Call volume has increased from about 200 a day a month ago to more than 1,500 a day, Sorian said. The average wait time is about 40 minutes. To shorten wait times, a new recording on the call center line informs people who simply want confirmation of enrollment in a plan to e-mail their name, date of birth and the last four digits of their Social Security number to info@dchealthlink.
com
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House extends current health plans for lawmakers, staffers, if needed

House extends current health plans for lawmakers, staffers, if needed

By Ed O’Keefe, Updated: December 5 at 9:09 pm

Acknowledging widespread issues with the process of enrolling for new health-care coverage, House officials reiterated Thursday that lawmakers and their staffs whose current health insurance is set to be terminated at the end of the year will automatically have that coverage extended until the end of January unless they have already enrolled in new coverage.

The reminder from House administrative officials is standard operating procedure for anyone set to lose coverage under the health-care program for federal employees. But the reminder also came as the congressional opening enrollment period is scheduled to end on Monday and amid reports of serious trouble with the Web site of the District’s health-care exchange, D.C. Health Link.

Aides to House Republican leaders said Thursday evening that they would not seek to extend the open enrollment period beyond Monday.

In recent days House and Senate staffers have shared myriad concerns with the Web site and complained of waits lasting more than two hours in some cases to meet in person with a Health Link official during benefits fairs on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday evening, Dan Strodel, the chief administrative officer of the House of Representatives, reminded House employees in an e-mail that staffers may stay with the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) "until you are successfully enrolled in a plan under DC Health Link." Current coverage will continue, if needed, until Jan. 31, 2014, he said. But coverage will end on Feb. 1 as scheduled, he said.

Strodel said he has informed the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and Health Link about "significant problems" preventing lawmakers and staffs from enrolling via the Web site.

An OPM spokesman wasn’t immediately available for comment. It was not immediately clear whether Senate leaders would take similar steps, but Senate aides generally have reported fewer concerns than House aides in recent days.

Currently, lawmakers and congressional staffers working on the Hill or across the country are members of FEHBP, the same insurance program used by millions of active and retired federal employees. Under the new law, lawmakers and most of their staffers must switch into D.C. Health Link in order to continue receiving their taxpayer-funded employer contribution.

House Republican leaders said Thursday evening that they support Strodel’s decision. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who chairs the House Administration Committee, said the Health Link Web site "is failing as utterly as the nationwide Obamacare Web site."

"The House is doing everything possible to assist our employees and their families from losing health care coverage because of this deeply flawed enrollment process," Miller said in a statement.

ObamaCare exchange errors, ‘scam’ frustrate congressional staffers

Health care

ObamaCare exchange errors, ‘scam’ frustrate congressional staffers

Published December 06, 2013

FoxNews.com

Shown here is a screenshot, shared by a Capitol Hill source with Fox News, of a ‘scam’ page on the DC Health Link website.

Congressional lawmakers and staff are getting a hard lesson in the problems with the ObamaCare websites, as they run up against long wait times, technical failures and security issues with the D.C. exchange.

The problems prompted the House chief administrative officer on Thursday to write the Office of Personnel Management urging them to take "immediate steps" to make sure lawmakers and staff can enroll.

New problems emerged on Friday, with a Capitol Hill source drawing attention to an apparent scam in the system. The source detailed how, after telling the user the password was incorrect, the site directed the individual to a "forgot password" page — which then asked for highly personal information.

"On that page I was asked for my check card number and my ATM pin," the source said. "I was fairly confident this was a scam so I called customer service. After a 103 minute hold time, I was told that this was indeed a scam."

This only adds to the pitfalls facing congressional officials trying to sign up, as they experience the same kinds of difficulties that other would-be enrollees encountered since the Oct. 1 launch. The administration says many of the problems with the federally run HealthCare.gov have been solved — and enrollment indeed has accelerated thanks to improvements in the site — but HealthCare.gov and locally run exchanges like the one in Washington, D.C., continue to exhibit problems.

A message that went out to Senate staff on Thursday noted the DC Health Link site was experiencing "technical difficulties."

On the House side, Chief Administrative Officer Dan Strodel described them as "significant problems" that are "preventing Members and staff in Washington D.C. and in district offices from enrolling in a healthcare plan via the DC Health Link website."

"We are urging OPM to take immediate steps to ensure that all Members and designated staff have the opportunity to enroll in a DC Health Link plan and receive confirmation of that enrollment upon completion of the process," he wrote.

Still, a number of lawmakers and staffers are getting through. The Washington Times reported that, as of Friday afternoon, 101 members of the House had enrolled. The Times reported that a third of Senate staffers and a quarter of House staffers had as well.

Congressional officials are currently enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Even for those who are unable to sign up for a new plan by Jan. 1 — when coverage under the ObamaCare exchanges begins — they will be able to stay covered under the FEHB until the end of January.

While the health care overhaul requires everyone to purchase insurance starting in 2014, congressional officials and staffers are in a special class in that they’re largely required to do so through the exchanges.

The law allows for some wiggle room, though. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took heat earlier this week after it was reported that he is allowing some staffers to keep their current plans. Those staffers, then, would not have to deal with the DC Health Link headaches this week.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, criticized Reid earlier this week for giving some staff a pass.

"Sen. Reid’s decision to exempt his staff … is the clearest example yet of ObamaCare’s failures and Washington hypocrisy," he said. "His staff worked to pass it and continue to promote it, now they don’t want to be part of it because it’s a disaster."

Fox News’ Mike Emanuel contributed to this report.

House official presses OPM on Obamacare

House official presses OPM on Obamacare
By: Seung Min Kim
December 5, 2013 06:31 PM EST
The House’s chief administrative officer is urging the Office of Personnel Management to take “immediate steps” to ensure lawmakers and aides can get enrolled under Obamacare despite the myriad glitches they’ve endured as they’ve tried to sign up.

Dan Strodel wrote in a message sent Thursday evening that he is well aware of the struggles that people have faced with the D.C. exchange, where members of Congress and qualifying aides will enroll for their coverage.

“With the end of the open enrollment period drawing near, we have made the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and DC Health Link aware of the significant problems preventing Members and staff in Washington D.C. and in district offices from enrolling in a healthcare plan via the DC Health Link website,” Strodel wrote in the email obtained by POLITICO.

“We are urging OPM to take immediate steps to ensure that all Members and designated staff have the opportunity to enroll in a DC Health Link plan and receive confirmation of that enrollment upon completion of the process,” Strodel continued.

Strodel also told lawmakers and aides in the email that their current plan under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program will continue through Jan. 31, 2014. Under Obamacare, they are required to purchase plans through the Obamacare exchanges starting Jan. 1, but the FEHB program allows its beneficiaries to stay on their plans for one month after the coverage has been cancelled.

In one of its latest technical problems, the website for D.C. Health Link was down for maintenance earlier Thursday – the same time that staffers for the exchange were in a Senate office building, trying to help aides sign up.

Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect the reasons why the Federal Employee Health Benefits program will run through Jan. 31, 2014.

© 2013 POLITICO LLC