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Health insurance site is working better, feds argue

A woman looks at the HealthCare.gov insurance exchange internet site
A woman looks at the HealthCare.gov insurance exchange internet site KAREN BLEIER

Federal officials fought hard to protect the reputation of the Affordable Care Act on Monday, saying they're tackling the health insurance website's problems one by one after an outage at one main contractor threw the whole site offline over the weekend.

The Obama administration also released a salvo against critics who say the health insurance policies being offered on the exchanges will be pricier than many expected. It released a report that showed 1.3 million young adults aged 18 to 34 could buy policies costing $50 or less a month after tax credits.

"Today’s report examines data from the 34 federally facilitated and state partnership marketplaces and finds that out of 2.9 million single young adults ages 18 to 34 who may be eligible for coverage in the Marketplace, 1.3 million (46 percent) could purchase a bronze plan for $50 per month or less after tax credits," HHS said in a statement.

"In the 34 states, a total of 1.9 million young adults, representing nearly 7 in 10 (66 percent) of the potentially Marketplace-eligible uninsured ages 18 to 34, may be able to pay $100 or less for coverage in 2014."

Young adults are considered key to the success of the new plans, which need relatively healthy people paying premiums to offset the sicker people who will also be enrolling.

The problems over the weekend brought down not only the federal site, which serves people trying to buy health insurance in 36 states, but also the sites in the 14 states and the District and Columbia that are doing their own marketplaces.

The troubles were the latest blow to the Obama administration's efforts to demonstrate that Obama's signature policy, health reform, is working as promised.

“Verizon Terremark successfully resolved the issue with the networking component overnight and as of 7 am ET this morning the Data Services Hub was fully operational,” the Health and Human Services Department said in a statement Monday.

“The HealthCare.gov technical team continued troubleshooting one issue with the online account creation process in the application and has now opened the online application and enrollment tools back up to consumers.”

Julie Bataille, a spokesperson for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which operates the website, says technical experts are getting a "high-level picture" of what is going on. "We reconfigured various components to improve site responsiveness," she told reporters on a conference call Monday.

The site hasn’t operated properly since it went live Oct. 1. It was designed to be a way for millions of Americans who do not have health insurance to go online, compare different health insurance plans, and choose one, as well as to see if they qualify for a federal government subsidy to help pay the premiums.

Instead, the site has been logjammed. The government has brought in teams of technical experts to help sort out the issues and has pledged to have the site operating smoothly for nearly everyone by the end of November. 

President Barack Obama admitted a week ago that the site wasn’t working right and he pledged to fix it. He appointed his new top economic adviser, Jeff Zients, to head up the repairs and Zients has since promised to have it working smoothly for “the vast majority of users” by the end of November.

CMS has appointed one of its contractors to head a team of experts working through what Zients calls a “punchlist” of problems to correct them one by one.

But Republicans in Congress are baying for blood, saying the site’s problems suggest the reforms called for under the 2010 Affordable Care Act will never work. Contractors who helped build the site testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week that while each individual part of the website worked well independently, tests of how they all worked together were rushed into the final two weeks before its Oct. 1 debut.

The administration also defended promises that most people would be able to keep their health insurance after insurance companies started reporting they were dropping hundreds of thousands of people from privately purchased policies. For instance, Florida Blue said it was terminating about 300,000 policies, about 80 percent of its individual policies in the state. An NBC News investigation showed that 50 percent to 75 percent of 14 million people who buy their own insurance plans might get cancellation notices.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the dropped policies don't meet the minimum standards called for by the Affordable Care Act. "An individual shopping for insurance, you know, when he or she purchases that insurance, knows that maternity care is covered, that preventive services are covered, that mental health services are covered, that the insurance policy you buy doesn't have an annual limit or a lifetime limit, that there are out-of- pocket expenses capped at a maximum level, both annually and for a lifetime," Carney told reporters.

"So it's true that there are existing healthcare plans on the individual market that don't meet those minimum standards and therefore do not qualify for the Affordable Care Act. There are some that can be grandfathered if people want to keep insurance that's substandard."

This week, two hearings are scheduled and members of Congress will not miss the opportunity to score points. On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee will question CMS chief Marilyn Tavenner, and on Wednesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

They'll be grilled on how the site could have gone live with so many problems and asked whether people will have time to sign up once all the issues are resolved — if they ever will be resolved. 

"Why doesn’t the website work? Why were the American people told everything would be ready, when it was clear that was not the case? " House Ways and Means committee chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, asks in a statement on the committee website.

"How deep are the problems and how long will it take to get those problems fixed? And most importantly, if people can’t navigate such a dysfunctional and overly complex system, is it fair for the IRS to impose tax penalties?