Friday, April 25, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

IRS: 330,000 got health-care calculations

Robert Calandra , observed by Oliver, takes one of the twelve online tests he needed to pass to become a navigator for the Affordable Care Act.
Robert Calandra , observed by Oliver, takes one of the twelve online tests he needed to pass to become a navigator for the Affordable Care Act. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON - Despite the technical problems plaguing many of the new health insurance websites, the federal government has delivered 330,000 premium subsidy calculations to people who have gotten deep enough into the system to find out whether they qualify for financial help, the Internal Revenue Service said Saturday. The disclosure offers a hint of how many people might be successful in using the online marketplaces, which opened Oct. 1 amid widespread technical difficulties.

But it is likely that the number of people who were able to enroll in coverage is far lower. Obama administration officials have declined to say how many consumers have signed up for insurance.

The websites are the main portal for millions of uninsured people to sign up for insurance under the nation's new health-care law, which requires most Americans to be covered starting next year or face a fine.

The sites are supposed to allow people to easily browse prices, find out whether they qualify for Medicaid or government subsidies, and enroll in health plans that will take effect Jan. 1. But many were initially stymied by long wait times and frequent error messages, unable to even create accounts, and since then more serious problems have occurred.

Most problematic has been the online marketplace being maintained by the federal government, HealthCare.gov, which serves people in 36 states. The rest of the states are running their own exchanges and have had varying degrees of technical difficulty.

The information about subsidy determinations was released by the IRS because it is one of about a half-dozen federal agencies that must verify information consumers enter on the marketplaces, also called exchanges. The agency databases are connected to state and insurance company databases through a complex network called the "data hub."

The hub is one part of the overall system that appears to be working well. An official with Kentucky's state-run exchange reported that 92 percent of its applicants have had information verified through the hub, according to a Department of Health and Human Services blog post Saturday.

The data hub was built by the contracting firm Quality Software Services, a Columbia-based company owned by UnitedHealth Group. The Obama administration announced Friday that QSSI would take on a new role as HealthCare.gov's general contractor, overseeing efforts to fix the websites' problems.

In addition, the IRS's technology supporting the health-care law is working well, IRS spokesman Terry Lemon said. The IRS is receiving about 80,000 data requests through the hub each day, he said, and "the requests are being processed within seconds."

The fact that the hub connects so many databases, including the Department of Homeland Security, has prompted privacy concerns, including from immigrant advocacy groups. Late Friday, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement issued a memo affirming that it would not try to find and deport illegal immigrants whose statuses could be inferred from information they enter into the marketplace.

The website problems have created worries among many of the 19 million Americans who bought health coverage on the private market but have been told by their insurance companies that their plans will be terminated by the end of the year because of the health-care law.

Most will have to choose a new plan by Dec. 15 - one that includes an array of benefits mandated by the law, such as maternity care. But choosing a new plan could be difficult without a functioning insurance marketplace.

 

Sarah Kliff and Sandhya Somashekhar Washington Post
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