The CEO of a leading online health insurance marketplace on Wednesday asked President Barack Obama to let his company run the shopping and enrollment process for troubled HealthCare.gov—for free—while that federal insurance market fixes its many tech problems.
eHealth chief Gary Lauer said his company has the experience, technical know-how and a stable online platform to soon start aggressively enrolling people in Obamacare insurance, which HealthCare.gov has had trouble doing on a large scale since its botched Oct. 1 launch.
"Mr. President: We are ready to help you get this program on track promptly, with the cooperation of the federal exchange, if you allow us to take over the shopping and enrollment process in all 36 federal exchange states—without cost to the taxpayer," Lauer wrote Obama.
"While your staff is working hard to repair HealthCare.gov, with your support, we can be the stopgap that is needed," Lauer said.
The Health and Human Services Department, which operates HealthCare.gov, is not likely to take eHealth up on its offer because officials there have repeatedly said since last week that HealthCare.gov is working better every day with the fixes it is making, and the agency expects the site will be working smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of November. HHS declined to comment.
Lauer noted in his letter that he is a "longtime supporter of the Affordable Care Act" who has spoken publicly in favor of Obama's signature legislation—and that his company already "has enrolled millions of individuals in affordable health insurance polices for over 13 years."
In an interview with CNBC.com, Lauer said, of his site ehealthinsurance.com: "Right now, there is something that works, that scales, that can handle the capacity."
Lauer noted that ehealthinsurance.com last year had 20 million visitors—and managed that traffic without any glitches of the kind that are plaguing HealthCare.gov.
Federal officials have said HealthCare.gov was overwhelmed by the volume of visitors right after it launched on Oct. 1, an admission that has drawn harsh criticism from tech experts. They note the many online shopping sites such as Amazon.com that routinely handle significantly higher volumes of visitors each day.
Lauer also said that "a little bit more than half" of the 20 million visitors to ehealthinsurance were "between 18 and 34 years old."
That demographic is a crucial one for Obamacare insurance plans, which by law cannot bar covering people with pre-existing conditions. If not enough young, healthy people sign up for those plans, insurers would likely be forced to increase their premiums in future years to cover the benefits they have to pay out to older, sicker people who sign up.
Younger adults "are not going to go to the call center or use paper applications," said Lauer, referring to the alternative routes that federal officials have suggested people use while HealthCare.gov's online enrollment system continues being fixed. "They're going to do this online—period."
Lauer concedes that his idea of taking over the shopping and enrollment application of HealthCare.gov is a long-shot. Still, the technical feasibility of Lauer's proposal is not far-fetched, according to other Web insurance markets, and insurance experts.
Letter to President Barack Obama from the CEO of eHealth.
Last summer, the federal government signed a deal with 34 web-based markets, including eHealth, GetInsured, and GoHealthInsurance, among others, to allow them to sell the same insurance plans that are being sold on HealthCare.gov to individuals who would receive government subsidies to offset the cost of that insurance.
The federal government cut that deal, to exploit the marketing muscle of sites like ehealthinsurance, which consistently is a top result on Google searches for the words "health insurance."
But none of those companies has been able to connect with the federal data hub in HealthCare.gov to begin selling those plans because of the same tech issues that have hampered other parts of the federal marketplace.
Chini Krishnan, CEO of GetInsured.com, didn't hesitate when asked if his site could handle the possibly very high volumes of visitors if the Obama administration began urging people to go to his site and shop for Obamacare insurance while HealthCare.gov is being fixed.
"Yeah, absolutely," Krishnan said. "We've been doing that for eight years."
"I do think that CMS and HealthCare.gov should look at expanding the use of Web-based entities (online insurance markets) as an aid and catalyst for enrollment," Krishnan said.
Krishnan said the number 1 objective is getting people enrolled in coverage, and "whether it gets done through one site or the other should be really a lesser concern."
Brandon Cruz, CEO of GoHealth, said, "Definitely, without question," when asked if his site Gohealthinsurance.com alone could handle the volume of visitors to HealthCare.gov.
"We already have, for years and years," Cruz said. "We have many thousands of agents that use our platform today, prior to health reform, and they run their whole business on it."
Cruz said that one hurdle to having a company such as GoHealth handle the bulk of the shopping and enrollment work that HealthCare.gov is supposed to be providing now is connecting the federal data hub on the government's website. That hub verifies peoples' incomes, which in turn determines whether or not they qualify for the government subsidies that can, in some cases, dramatically reduce the cost of insurance.
"We need to hit the data hub," Cruz said.
Bobby Koritala, chief product officer of insurance data integrity provider Infogix, said that if the federal government actively pushed people to the web-based insurance markets like ehealthinsurance, GoHealth, and GetInsured, "I think it would be hugely effective, because you'd have that many more portals to go in and enroll."
Lauer said he favors the "maybe more radical" solution of having his company take over the shopping and enrollment function of HealthCare.gov in the interim until the fixes are done. But he said having the federal government actively encourage visitors to go to his and other online insurance markets is "a solution."
"I'd be OK with that," he said.
—By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter @_DanMangan.
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First published October 30 2013, 8:17 AM