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Experts Suggest Software Problems, Not Just Demand, May Be Behind Marketplace Glitches

WebMD News from Kaiser Health News

By Jay Hancock

Thu, Oct 03 2013

By Phil Galewitz

Updated at 9:18 a.m.

Three insurance companies confirmed Thursday that they have enrolled customers through the federal online marketplace created by the health law, but the numbers were meager and signup frustration continued for many people.

While completed signups at Cigna, Aetna and a Blue Cross plan in Louisiana confirmed that the federal system serving 36 states is functioning at some level, there were continued reports of delays and failures.

As it did on the first two days of the online enrollment under the health law, the Obama administration blamed the delays on overwhelming volume, but analysts suggested software design might also be a problem.

“This is not solely a traffic issue,” said Dan Mendelson, CEO of consultant Avalere Health. “There are more underlying issues that have to be resolved.”

Startup headaches aren’t unusual for systems of such size and complexity, but delays could hinder enrollment if they don’t ease significantly by the end of next week, the analysts said.

“We will have a sense by the end of next Friday on what impact this is going to have on consumers’ ability to have coverage” in January, said Dan Schuyler, a director at consulting firm Leavitt Partners and former information technology director for the Utah Health Exchange.

Insurers are increasingly promoting their own websites as alternative venues for consumers to compare plans and even create accounts for later follow-up. Although shoppers may also see non-marketplace plans on those insurers’ websites, only exchange plans are eligible for the federal tax credits to reduce the cost of coverage.

Consumers lacking health insurance have until Dec. 15 to sign up for subsidized coverage beginning Jan. 1, but the open enrollment period for 2014 ends March 31.

The Obama administration said it was working hard to fix the problems which it continued to attribute to high demand.

“Experts are working around the clock and were able to expand system capacity somewhat overnight, cutting by one-third the volume of people waiting to apply,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services. “Work on the site continues today.”

But others suggested that design flaws seem to be at least partly to blame for the headaches.

Difficulty setting up security questions and other problems encountered by users “are technical issues, not [just] volume,” Schuyler said. “What it comes down to is there wasn’t enough time to thoroughly test the systems.”

“This is not a glitch. A glitch is a minor problem,” said Robert Laszewski, a consultant and former insurance executive. “The real story is that the Obamacare computer systems simply are not working.”

Patsy Burkins, executive director of the Charlotte Community Services Association, which is helping to enroll consumers, said she’s been trying unsuccessfully for three days to get onto the federal exchange to look at prices in the Carolinas. Because she has failed to get on the site even as early as 5 a.m, she doesn’t believe the problem is due to traffic.

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