published Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Trying times for Obamacare

Local and national coverage
Law requires changes to 66,000 BlueCross insurance plans

Tennessee's biggest health insurer, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said Tuesday that 66,000 individual policy holders in the state are getting notices that their health plans must change to comply with the Affordable Care Act. The insurer is giving policy holders notice before the end of the year to help them transition to other BlueCross plans that cover the 10 essential benefits required under Obamacare, such as prescription drugs, mental health treatment and maternity care. BlueCross has 40,000 other individual policy holders who are grandfathered under the new law, Vaughn said.

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    Muriel Hassell sits with her daughters, Victoria, Elizabeth, Lillian and Gwen, from left.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

For nearly three weeks, about three times a day, Muriel Hassell would sit down at her computer, type "HealthCare.gov" into the browser, and click the green button that says "Apply Now."

And each time, she would be met with an error message. Or the screen would freeze. Or she would find herself kicked off the page. She called the 1-800 number as another route to enroll while the site didn't work -- but was told she would have to wait until the website was working.

Finally at 2 a.m. one day, Hassell, a 29-year-old working mother of four daughters, was able to log in. She wasted no time filling out an application. But when she got to the end of the lengthy process, she got an error message that stated the system was having problems and could not process her request.

"I just said, 'You have got to be kidding me,'" Hassell said. "I finally just stopped trying about two weeks ago. I'll try again when I hear it's actually working."

For months now, Hassell has needed to have her gall bladder removed, but she has put off the procedure because neither her nor her partner's job offers health insurance.

She is one of millions of uninsured Americans who have counted down the days to the launch of Obamacare, only to be disappointed by the malfunctioning website -- which is meant to be the portal for people to shop for coverage in 36 states, including Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

With limited exceptions, frustration has been the common experience for Americans trying to sign up for the plans -- a key element in President Barack Obama's law meant to create a seismic shift in insurance access.

The Obama administration has pledged to fix the problems by the end of November. But GOP leaders have increased pressure on the administration in congressional hearings this week.

On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee questioned Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner, who apologized that the "website has not worked as well as it should."

And the nation's exasperation with the system is expected to come to a head today as House Republicans grill Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about the problems.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, called for Sebelius to resign because of the "disastrous rollout of Obamacare."

"Expecting this secretary to be able to fix what she has not been able to fix during the last three and one half years is unrealistic," Alexander said. "It is throwing good money after bad."

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    Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius arrives in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington for and event with President Barack Obama on the initial rollout of the health care overhaul. As the public face of President Barack Obama’s signature health care program, Sebelius has become the target for attacks over its botched rollout. Republicans want her to resign and even some Democrats — while not mentioning her name — say someone needs to be fired.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Additionally, GOP leaders have expressed concern about the security of the HealthCare.gov site. Before users can compare potential plans, they must put in sensitive personal information, including address, income and Social Security numbers, to create an application.

"I'm definitely not plugging in my daughters' Social Security numbers at this point," Hassell said.

Despite her own frustrations, Hassell -- a rehab technician and a volunteer firefighter -- said she still supports the health law.

"It may be complicated at first, but I really think it will help people," she said. "I saw that back in Massachusetts."

She moved to Northern Alabama last year from the Boston area, where she was insured through the state's Romneycare health program.

Hassell had originally been a critic of the law, worried about price hikes, swamped doctors' offices and "freeloaders."

But she ended up getting a plan through the state that covered her whole family. She had to pay for it, but it was affordable -- unlike plans she has shopped for in the tri-state region.

"All of my friends up there are covered regardless of their job situation," she said. "And people seem to put a much higher value on taking care of their health."

She hates the bitter partisan politics surrounding the law's rollout, but said contractors who designed the site should be held accountable.

"They shouldn't get away with it," she said. "When I screw up at work, my boss doesn't just say, 'It's fine.' They should pay for it."


Like Hassell, those shopping on the site have hit roadblocks at every step of the application process. But problems have been reported even after plans have been purchased through the site.

Insurance companies across the country have reported that the HealthCare.gov portal has transmitted inaccurate or incomplete enrollment information to their companies, furthering complications.

This week, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee reported that it had "experienced some of the same issues" as other insurers.

"We work closely with HHS to identify issues as they arise, so that they can work on solutions to improve the site's performance," said BlueCross spokesman Gary Tanner.

Meanwhile, Tanner said traffic to BlueCross' informational website and call volumes remain high.

The company, like other insurers, is working its own "direct enrollment" feature so people can bypass HealthCare.gov and purchase a marketplace plan directly from the BlueCross site -- but that launch is contingent on Healthcare.gov working.

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    The BlueCross BlueShield logo is visible on the side of their old building.
    Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Tanner said the company will launch that function only when it can "fully test and confirm the integrity of the data we receive."

While initial enrollment numbers through the site are expected to be small, there are those who have managed to reach the finish line in the process.

David Yoder, who is vice president of the Chattanooga-based company American Exchange, which specializes in the new marketplace, has already received a copy of his new BlueCross BlueShield policy purchased on the exchange.

The $293 premium policy, which covers Yoder and his wife, is less expensive than his previous plan and incorporates some benefits that the couple's previous policy didn't include. For example, the couple used to pay extra for maternity coverage, while maternity care is now included in all Marketplace plans.

Yoder's family was not eligible for tax subsidies to put toward premiums, but he was able to select a new, less expensive network "E" under BlueCross -- which is only available through the exchange, and to choose a "bronze" plan that features the lowest premiums while requiring higher out-of-pocket costs.

"We felt we could be disciplined enough to set aside the monthly premium savings to cover our share of medical expenses throughout the year," Yoder said.

American Exchange has managed to help about 40 clients get through the site to purchase plans through the marketplace, but is now focusing on taking down consumers' information to complete the process when the site starts working better.

Yoder hopes that will be the case in November.

"The administration has said it should be working efficiently by then," he said. "Our plan is to push through, one way or another."

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

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