Obamacare Focus Shifts from Washington to Vegas

Federal officials scattered across the country — from a Senate committee in Washington, D.C., to the Las Vegas strip — to assure lawmakers and representatives of the employer benefits community that the Obamacare enrollment website will be fully operative by the end of November, as the White House has promised.

“It’s no secret that the marketplace website has had problems – and it’s certainly not acceptable,” said Christen Linke Young,” director of coverage policy for the Department of Health and Human Services, Tuesday, during the 6th World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress, in Las Vegas. “We are under an aggressive effort to fix the problems.”

Meanwhile , almost a continent away before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the federal official who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, urged Americans to log onto the Obamacare website now because “it has improved,” with more people completing applications following a month of problems that besieged the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov.

Testimony on the Hill

Marilyn Tavenner noted the administration’s target for the end of November was 800,000 people enrolled, but was not immediately clear whether that was a prediction for what the actual figure would be or referred instead to the number projected before the troubled website launch, Oct. 1, 2013.

Both federal officials faced questions, Tavenner from Republican opponents of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, who insisted that the law itself is the problem, not the dysfunctional website for enrolling; Young from employers, insurance executives and healthcare providers who were far less contentious, but no less concerned.

“At its core, the marketplace exchanges will revolutionize the way individuals shop for coverage,” said Young, before a packed ballroom in Caesars Palace. “What we are talking about in the individual marketplaces in terms of transparency and competition has been unheard of.”

Daily Repairs Scheduled

Young said that individuals can expect to fill out an application for insurance in 8-9 minutes, or 20 minutes per family. That’s for those who can achieve online access. The application page of the Obamacare website — stricken with glitches for weeks — will go offline daily while a technology team works to resolve problems, HHS said this week, beginning 1-5 a.m., during which time Americans will not be able to apply or enroll on Healthcare.gov.

During those periods, Young said the remainder of the site will remain open and that people looking for insurance can also access a toll-free call center – 1-800-318-2596 — which operates in 100 different languages, 24 hours, and seven days a week. She said that online chat support, “navigators” and certified application counselors were also on-hand to assist with problems related to the publicly maligned website.

Young encouraged insurance agents and brokers to get involved with the process and gain commissions by helping healthcare consumers walk through applications and enrollments.

More about Access

Phyllis Borzi, an assistant secretary for the Department of Labor, said Obamacare is more about access to medical coverage than healthcare reform is about a website.

“The simple fact is that everyone here today has been talking about the website – does it work, will it work – but like the president said, the website is not the Affordable Care Act,” Borzi, who leads the Employee Benefits Security Administration, told the World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress in a videotaped message prompted by scheduling conflicts. “The ACA’s goal is to make sure that all roles lead to coverage – that everyone has a chance to get coverage.”

Borzi called the troubled market exchanges the “crowning jewel” of the Affordable Care Act, making reference to a favorite poem of hers, “Home” by Robert Frost.

“If we want to get a sense of the poem and the marketplace,” ‘Home’ is when you go, they have to take you in,” said Borzi, a former high school English teacher. “That’s what the exchanges are all about. They have to take you in. You have a right to fit in.”

Heavy Hitters at Bat

Borzi said the very nature of the legislation, which directly involves Washington’s heaviest hitters – the Internal Revenue Service, DOL, and HHS – has made implementation of healthcare reform difficult and tedious.

“Nobody can write a law that thinks of every possible contingency,” she said. “Are we doing what congress intended? In some cases, the legislation is very straightforward. In other areas, it was not drafted effectively.”

To move the legislation through the three federal agencies, Borzi said the process was both time consuming and complex.

“Many of you in the audience are probably like my friends,” she said. “You were yelling that we weren’t getting the regulations out quick enough and you were yelling that we were getting too many out too fast.”

Input Welcomed

Borzi acknowledged that more information is still needed, despite all the notices, and answers to “frequently asked” and technical questions that were forwarded to familiarize the public about the ambitious healthcare reform legislation. She welcomed continued questions and input from those insured, and those not.

“I suspect those of us here are the lucky ones in that we have health insurance and we have good health insurance, but there are 48 million people out there who don’t have coverage,” said Borzi. “If you know someone who doesn’t have coverage, regardless of if you voted for the president or didn’t vote for the president, the law of the land says if you don’t have coverage and sign up, you can get coverage. Tell them to look, be a shopper and maybe they’ll like something.”

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