Sebelius apologizes for Obamacare technical problems

Washington — U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized for the technical disasters plaguing the rollout of major provisions of the health reform law during several hours of questioning by members of a congressional panel Wednesday.

“I was wrong,” she said before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “We were wrong.”

Although Connecticut’s health insurance exchange has not had many of the technological woes the federally run exchanges have, its ability to process applications was hampered twice this week because of outages at the federal data hub used to verify applicants’ personal information.

Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said Wednesday that the data hub was operational for state-run exchanges as of 5 a.m. Wednesday, but it’s still down for HealthCare.gov, the federal website that exchange customers in 34 states use to shop for coverage.

“We continue to diagnose the cause of the outages,” she said.

Connecticut’s exchange, Access Health CT, has tried to minimize its reliance on the federal data hub. There are 14 pieces of information states could verify through the data hub, but CEO Kevin Counihan said Access Health has found other ways to gather much of the information, so it only has to ping the data hub seven times for each application.

But Counihan said it hasn’t been possible to further reduce the reliance on the data hub.

During the data hub outages, which occurred Sunday and Tuesday night, people using the Access Health website to apply for coverage were able to save their information so they could continue when the hub was back up, Counihan said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

Counihan said that unlike many other exchange websites, Connecticut’s exchange has not had any outages since it launched Oct. 1. There were five attempts at hacking it, he said, including two from a foreign country, and officials had to get the National Security Agency involved.

Although he did not provide specific enrollment figures, Counihan said the exchange’s enrollment was not “tracking exactly to plan.” “We are behind plan, not significantly,” he said.

Counihan said he expects the bulk of the enrollment to come between Thanksgiving and mid-December, and said there are activities under way to boost application activity. The exchange has opened a storefront in New Britain to help assist potential applicants and has plans to open another in New Haven.

In the first two weeks of enrollment, Access Health issued daily updates of application, website and call center activity. But it has not released any enrollment data since Oct. 18. Counihan said the White House has encouraged states to report information monthly.

“Our board is not comfortable with that,” he said. “They’ve actually tried to thread the needle a little bit, and they’ve told us to report now every two weeks.”

The next enrollment report will be Nov. 1.

As of last week, about 700,000 applications were completed on the federal and state exchanges, Bataille said.

During Sebelius’ appearance before the congressional panel Wednesday, Republican members asked about the hundreds of thousands of health insurance policy cancellations being issued despite President Obama’s promise that Americans with insurance would be able to keep such coverage under the law.

She said insurance companies often cancel policies, and that those will be replaced with new and better policies mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

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