Another day, another big, bad black eye for HealthCare.gov.
A crucial system for making payments to insurers from people who enroll in that federal Obamacare marketplace has yet to be built, a senior government IT official admitted Tuesday.
The official, Henry Chao, visibly stunned Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) when he said under questioning before a House subcommittee that a significant fraction of HealthCare.gov—30 to 40 percent of it—has yet to be constructed.
"We still need to build the payments system to make the payments [to insurance companies] in January," testified Chao, deputy chief information officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that operates HealthCare.gov.
That so-called financial management tool was originally supposed to be part of HealthCare.gov when it launched Oct. 1, but officials later suspended its launch as part of their effort to get the consumer interface part of the site ready. The tool will, when it works, transmit the subsidies that the government is kicking in for many enrollees to offset the costs of their monthly premiums.
'Completing this lap'
Hours later, however, a colleague of Chao's at the CMS revealed some good news for HealthCare.gov, saying insurers and online insurance marketplaces will very soon be able to directly start enrolling people in Obamacare insurance who qualify for government subsidies to offset its cost.
A set of software bugs on HealthCare.gov had, for more than six weeks, prevented individual insurance company websites and web brokers including ehealthinsurance.com, getinsured.com and GoHealthInsurance.com from interfacing with the federal site to verify enrollee's subsidy eligibility. That lack of so-called "direct enrollment" had undoubtedly played a role in what has been abysmally low levels of enrollment in Obamacare insurance.
(Read more: Low-bamacare enrollment)
"We do believe the the majority of the fixes for direct, online enrollment are addressed," said CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille. She said that "in coming days," as insurers and online brokers make their own assessments of their systems, they could begin enrolling people.
EHealth spokesman Nate Purpura said, "We are still in the process of confirming that the fixes have been made that will provide a stable and consumer-friendly user experience. Once we have more information, we can provide further comment."
Chini Krishnan, CEO of GetInsured, said, "We are close to completing this lap."