Connecticut health exchange ‘backup plan’ no help during national outage

Washington – A backup plan Connecticut’s health exchange developed to help insulate it from Washington’s problems in the rollout of Obamacare was no help at all Sunday, when the federal system that checks information from applicants went down, stalling most enrollments.

“There are some things that still have to be worked through, some technical problems,” said Jason Madrak, chief marketing officer for Access Health CT, Connecticut’s health care exchange.

He was referring to what he called “Plan B,” created by the Connecticut exchange to continue to process applications if there are troubles with a federal data hub that verifies identities, income, citizenship and other personal information of applicants. The hub verifies this information both for states that use the federal exchange website and states like Connecticut, which have developed their own portal. It also determines an applicant’s eligibility for subsidies to help pay for insurance or for Medicaid, which has been expanded in Connecticut through the ACA.

While much attention has been paid to the massive problems plaguing the federal website many states use to enroll the uninsured under the Affordable Care Act, less notice has been made of the hub’s operations, which seemed fairly glitch-free before Sunday morning’s failure that knocked all state exchanges out of business. Connecticut’s site was the first to report the outage.

According to Access Health CT officials, the hub was back up about 24 hours later. But Department of Health and Human Services officials said they are still testing “one piece of the system impacted by the outage.”

If the federal hub crashed, a “backup plan” was supposed to be ready to take its place, Kevin Counihan, CEO of Access Health CT, said last month.

In an email sent to The Connecticut Mirror before the Oct. 1 debut of the exchanges, Access Health CT said if the federal hub failed, applicants would be allowed to enroll in a health plan and follow up with copies of tax records and other documents and forms of identification.

“In this instance, we will be utilizing self-attestation for collecting individual information and using it to determine eligibility and enrollment. This would mean that individuals would complete their application online, and follow up by providing copies of information such as W2’s, ID’s, etc. via fax/paper, to confirm information which would have otherwise been verified electronically via the hub. We have vendors already aligned, and processes tested to resort to this system should a prolonged hub outage occur,” the email said.

But on Monday, Access Health CT spokeswoman Kathleen Tallarita said the Connecticut exchange is “not allowed to do self-attestation.” She said “identity proofing” was a major problem.

Tallarita said visitors to the site could start an application and shop the exchange’s policies during the outage, but were not able to complete an application. She also said she did not know how many health insurance shoppers in Connecticut were affected by the hub’s 24-hour outage.  

It showed that even Connecticut, which has one of the best operating portals in the nation, is vulnerable to the technical problems besieging implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Washington.

Madrak said Access Health CT is committed to its “Plan B” and expects it will be fully operational if the hub fails again, especially if an outage lasts more than a day.

The crash of the data center, operated by Verizon Communication’s Terremark unit, was the latest problem in the troubled rollout of the health insurance exchanges.

HHS said it has awarded a new contract to QSSI to make sure the federal exchange, called HealthCare.gov, is fully operational by the end of November.

Ironically, QSSI wrote the computer codes for the data hub.

The insurance industry, which counts on an avalanche of new customers, preferably young and healthy, to offset some of the  ACA’s mandates, is increasingly worried.

“We want people enrolled,” said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group.

Zirkelbach said all state exchanges must be glitch-free by Thanksgiving or “the time period gets very, very short” for Americans to sign up for health care by Jan. 1.

Although the Obama administration has expanded the signup period to March 31, many plans end Dec. 31, and people shopping for new coverage must be able to submit their applications in time for a new policy to start Jan. 1.

The ACA’s many technical problems have also fueled Republican-led calls to delay the “individual mandate,” the requirement that nearly all Americans have health insurance coverage next year.

Noting the “critical link between the mandate and ACA’s market reforms,” AHIP disseminated an editorial in the Washington Post Monday that said ”attacking the so-called individual mandate makes for great politics but following through on the delay would destabilize the new and vulnerable insurance market.”

Some Republicans in Congress insist that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius resign over the problems in the federal exchanges.

Sebelius will be grilled by Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee when the panel holds a hearing Wednesday on the rollout of the exchanges.

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