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UPDATE 1-Two U.S. hospital chains dismiss Obamacare technical woes

Susan Kelly
Tuesday, 5 Nov 2013 | 2:49 PM ET

Nov 5 (Reuters) - Two U.S. hospital operators said on Tuesday technology problems bedeviling the federal government's online health insurance marketplace were gradually diminishing and will not stop them from pushing ahead with plans to provide care to those who sign up.

"If any company had three years' notice about having a website functioning for a major product launch on October 1, it would have worked. It's frustrating that it did not work," hospital operator Tenet Healthcare Corp's Chief Executive Trevor Fetter said in an interview with Reuters following the company's third-quarter earnings conference call.

While the glitches that have prevented many potential health plan enrollees from signing up are disappointing, "we're not terribly concerned about it," Fetter said.

That is because those uninsured patients will not be able to access the new plans until January anyway, so there is still plenty of time to sign up, he said.

Fetter said problems with online access to the federal insurance exchange have been lessening, and patients can also enroll through call centers, where waiting times have been coming down. State exchanges such as the one set up in California are working much better and are offering a selection of affordable plans, he added.

"This is a really important innovation," Fetter said. "I wouldn't judge it by the initial performance of the federal website."

HCA Holdings Inc Chief Executive Richard Bracken said issues with the federal website have not deterred the company from its own plans to contract with insurers to provide care to new patients.

Ninety-seven percent of HCA's U.S. hospitals have an exchange contract with access to a bronze level insurance plan, he said. Such plans have the lowest premiums.

"We are well-positioned to participate and provide healthcare services," Bracken said on the company's earnings conference call.

Tenet said it has contracts with about three-quarters of all the exchange plans that are offered in its markets.

EAGER FOR PATIENTS

Hospital companies have a lot riding on the success of the insurance exchanges. Hospitals are struggling with declining admissions as many Americans have stayed away from the doctor due to lack of insurance or high deductible on their plans.

The companies expect patient admissions to grow and bad debts to decline as more patients gain insurance to pay for their care.

Tenet shares fell about 9 percent on Tuesday, to $43.96, after it provided a disappointing outlook for the fourth quarter when it released its third-quarter results on Monday.

HCA, the largest publicly owned U.S. hospital operator, was one of the only hospital chains to report a modest increase of less than 1 percent in admissions to its facilities in the third quarter. Its shares fell 2.5 percent Tuesday to $46.53.

Jefferies & Co analyst Brian Tanquilut said he believes hospitals in 2014 will benefit primarily from more people being eligible for the Medicaid health insurance program that serves the poor.

"The health reform story is intact, but near term, the volume headwinds, which have been hampering hospitals for five years, continue to persist," he said.