published Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

HealthCare.gov website problems stymie local efforts

With chronic problems crippling the federal health care website, local counselors and insurance brokers say they are holding off on their efforts to enroll people in insurance plans through the site until late November.

That’s when federal officials have pledged to fix HealthCare.gov, the online insurance marketplace that is supposed to be the portal for people to shop for coverage in 36 states, including Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

October was supposed to be a month of momentum for the new site, which is a core feature of President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Chattanooga-area offices tasked with helping people enroll on the site have instead spent the month on informational meetings and outreach, some even resorting to sending in paper applications via snail mail.

“People seem to be getting stuck at every stage of the process,” said Rae Young Bond, director of the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, which is helping with signup efforts. “It’s been very frustrating for many folks.”

Bond and others leading similar programs continue to strike an optimistic tone, encouraging people not to give up in the early stages of the program.

But as frustrations mount with the faulty website — which cost an estimated $400 million to create — Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius faces a grilling from GOP leaders as she testifies Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“The incompetence in building this website is staggering,” U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the second-ranking Republican on the panel, told The Associated Press.

Local offices assisting with enrollment have received few details from the federal government about the problems or the plan for fixing them.

“They’re just telling us very generally that we’re working around the clock to fix it,” said Katherlyn Geter, who is overseeing enrollment outreach efforts for Erlanger Health System.

So counselors are using the time to educate the uninsured about new options. And that has kept the offices busy, Geter said, as people have had many questions about what kinds of plans may be best for them.

Navigators in North Georgia say they were advised to go forward with the application process via paper — mailing in eligibility forms, and waiting for a response.

“I hope that by the time they get the eligibility determination back the website will be working, and we can actually help people compare plans,” said Amy Buffington, who is supervising outreach efforts for the Primary Care Center in Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties.

While mailing the applications comforts those anxious to start the process, a functioning website will be critical to actually shop for policies, said Buffington.

American Exchange, a Chattanooga-based health insurance broker specializing in the new marketplace, has paused its efforts to enroll people through the website, Vice President David Yoder said.

Instead, the company is helping customers sort through plans and subsidies, then taking down their information on paper — with the expectation that company will submit those online by Nov. 20.

“We’ve taken that frustration off the consumer’s hands and placed it on ourselves,” he said.

The company has been able to help finish the process for about 40 policies but it has been a “huge time drain,” Yoder said.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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