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Rx for Obamacare? Feds may rebuild health marketplace

In Miami, Affordable Care Act navigator Adrian Madriz speaks with Lourdes Duenas, who is looking for coverage.
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In Miami, Affordable Care Act navigator Adrian Madriz speaks with Lourdes Duenas, who is looking for coverage.

To move things along, the clogged-up federal Obamacare marketplace could be getting the Roto-Rooter treatment.

The clunky Healthcare.gov, where people from 36 states are shopping for health insurance, is reportedly considering a rebuild of some sections to address lags that allegedly stem from software that requires users to create an account before they can see their plan options and prices.

A Wall Street Journal story published Thursday first detailed that discussion.

When asked about story Friday, Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said, "We have a strong team in place, including external contractors, who are working around the clock to improve Healthcare.gov. We have a plan in place and are making progress, but we will not stop until the doors to Healthcare.gov are wide open."

In the meantime, HHS has put a tool on the website that helps users check out lists of plans and example of premiums without having to go establish an account. That information was previously available on the site but wasn't highlighted.

But experts said the tool lacks some key information (such as details about out-of-pocket costs like co-pays or government subsidies that applicants may qualify for) that people need to know how much their coverage will cost. The subsidies available to many enrollees could significantly reduce how much they pay.

The tool also also doesn't include pricing variations that reflect a person's age.

Experts have criticized the design of Healthcare.gov for making it necessary to first create an account—which requires answering multiple personal questions about name, family size, address, age, income and other data—before viewing pricing screens that fully reflect premium prices adjusted for age, out-of-pocket costs and the subsidies.

Possibly as a result of those lags, relatively few people are believed to be have signed up for coverage on the federal marketplace, which is not releasing enrollment data until mid-November.

(Read more: Obamacare delays)

"It's actually a big problem," said Jonathan Wu, chief analyst of the price comparison website ValuePenguin.com, about having to first create an account.

The software related to determining eligibility for insurance and the subsidies that might offset premiums "is the most complicated stuff" on the marketplace, he said, and is a drag on the site's central processing unit and memory.

"It's resource-intensive," said Wu, whose site has been closely tracking Obamacare plan pricing since data began being released last spring.

In comparison, he said, presenting plan details and price information requires significantly fewer system resources.

(Read more: "Daily Show" roasts Obamacare rollout)

"No one would design a shopping site" on which people were required to input a large amount of personal data before being shown what's offered, Wu said, noting that most visitors to both the federal and state exchange sites when they launched Oct. 1 wanted to compare prices rather than sign up for coverage right away.

In a statement, Peters, the HHS spokeswoman, said, "We have greatly reduced, and even eliminated, wait times at the registration stage, and more people are actively shopping and comparing plans."

A number of Obamacare marketplaces being run by individual states let people check out plan details and prices first, and a number of those states, after initial tech glitches, are running more smoothly than Healthcare.gov.

Nevada Health Link, built by Xerox, is one exchange that lets people look at plan details and pricing before setting up an account.

"Nevada always made it a priority to have a user-centric site," said Nevada Health Link spokesman CJ Bawden. "Our goal was to make the Web portal as simple as possible to get coverage through the exchange and find out if you're eligible for Medicaid or a subsidy. ... Allowing people to get information without 'declaring' who they are or giving their personal information is part of that process."

The New York State of Health marketplace reported that as of Friday morning, nearly 80,000 people had completed the application process and been determined eligible for plans, according to spokesman Jeffrey Hammond.

Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, nearly all Americans are required to get health insurance within the first two months of 2014 or pay a tax penalty. Though most people are covered by employer plans, or Medicare and Medicaid programs, about 30 million have no insurance.

(Read more: States release Obamacare enrollment, feds mum)

The ACA also mandated the creation of exchanges to offer the uninsured a range of competing plans at what are supposed to be affordable prices.

Most states refused to create their own exchange and are letting the federal government offer their residents coverage through Healthcare.gov. The government has estimated that 7 million people will enroll through marketplace plans by the time open enrollment ends March 31.

By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter @_DanMangan

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