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Nine Senate Dems push for Obamacare work-around

Wednesday, 27 Nov 2013 | 1:41 PM ET
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius

One congressional group doesn't want to wait for HealthCare.gov to get it together.

Nine Democratic senators want federal officials to allow insurers and Web insurance brokers to enroll people directly in all forms of Obamacare coverage without having to interact with the HealthCare.gov marketplace.

In two letters sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the senators say the move would be "an effective interim solution for enrolling consumers" while a tech team continues working to fix the website, which has seen severely disappointing numbers since its Oct. 1 launch.

"We ask that you prioritize a path to fixing the direct-enrollment process through insurance carriers and allowing enrollment through Web-based entities (WBEs) as options for consumers who are shopping for health insurance coverage," eight of the senators wrote. "We believe it is appropriate for consumers to have multiple enrollment channels in order to maximize choice and make enrollment as convenient as possible."

(Read more: Gobble, gobble, code, code: No Thanksgiving for Obamacare tech-fix team)

The request is significant because it appears to ask Sebelius to do something HHS has long refused: allow insurers and Web brokers to let customers "determine their eligibility for tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies" to offset the costs of their Obamacare plan without going through HealthCare.gov.

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The senators who wrote Sebelius are Charles Schumer of New York, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Warner of Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagen of North Carolina and Bill Nelson of Florida. Mark Pryor of Arkansas wrote a similar letter signed only by himself.

The senators all noted that "many" of their respective constituents "have not been able to enroll successfully in a health insurance plan" because of HealthCare.gov's persistent technical problems.

HealthCare.gov is selling insurance to residents of the 36 states not operating their own health exchanges. The site also contains the federal data hub, which for all 50 states and the District of Columbia verifies customers' eligibility for government subsidies to offset the cost of coverage.

(Read more: Insurers might get reinsurance windfall under Obamacare rule change)

The HealthCare.gov site was supposed to allow insurers and many Web brokers to directly enroll customers in Obamacare plans without requiring customers to create accounts or sign up via its interface.

But because of the federal site's software problems, direct enrollment was not feasible. Only in the past week or so has direct enrollment from insurers in Texas, Florida and Ohio begun on a pilot program basis. The Web brokers still have not been able to perform direct enrollment.

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Even if the direct enrollment function eventually comes online for all insurers and Web brokers offering Obamacare insurance, HHS has said customers' eligibility for subsidies would have to be made through the federal data hub. And the brokers, which unlike individual insurers have to show consumers all competing Obamacare plans available to them, will be required to send people through HealthCare.gov for eligibility verification.

Web brokers have expressed concern that such a requirement will lead to customers' not returning to their websites to finish enrolling, which would would deprive them of commissions for policy sales.

An HHS spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the senators' letters to Sebelius.

(Read more: Most women clueless about Obamacare birth-control rule)

A spokesman for Web broker eHealth said that it "strongly supports the goals of the Affordable Care Act, and we're committed in our relationship with [federal officials] to implement a Web-based enrollment system that is stable and consumer-friendly. We believe that a true direct link to the federal data hub that bypasses HealthCare.gov is the optimal way to leverage the private sector."

Earlier this week, another broker, GoHealth, launched a work-around to the direct enrollment delay by letting customers enroll in subsidy-eligible Obamacare coverage by calling a customer service representative.

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

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