The federal government is sending out emails starting Tuesday to invite 275,000 people who failed to enroll at the new health insurance website to try again.
The HealthCare.gov website is now working well enough so that people who started to create accounts and then gave up should be able to finish, says Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the site.
“While working to improve our system, we have been been conducting an analysis to identify people who tried and failed to create accounts,” Bataille told reporters in a telephone briefing.
“We have been messaging them to let them know they can now try again.”
Sure enough, the emails started landing Tuesday evening.
"Complete your enrollment: We can help," they read. "Our records show there was a problem setting up your Marketplace account at HealthCare.gov. Don't miss your opportunity to find out how much you could save on your health insurance."
Bataille says technicians worked over the three-day Veteran’s Day weekend to add more data storage and to make software fixes that “addressed dozens of outstanding issues.” These have “enhanced the user experience,’ she says.
“We want to make sure that ... their experience will be a positive one."
HealthCare.gov, the centerpiece of health reform efforts under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, fell apart as soon as it went live on Oct. 1. It was supposed to be a seamless, online system to allow people to comparison shop for health insurance policies, contrasting prices, and checking right away to see if they qualified for a generous federal government subsidy to buy a plan.
It has to take in details of a person’s income and employment, connect with state insurance regulators and various insurance companies, as well as the Internal Revenue Service to check income, the Department of Homeland Security to check for legal residency, and various other government departments.
Several different contractors put together parts of the system and when it went online, the parts didn’t work together. The result: Hardly anyone managed to sign up, critics said “I told you so” and Congress launched several investigations.
President Barack Obama has promised to fix it and appointed his new chief economic adviser, a management expert named Jeff Zients, to lead the repair effort. It’s on track to be running smoothly for ‘the vast majority of users” by the end of the month, Bataille says.
In the meantime, people can keep trying. This week, CMS will send out 275,000 emails. “Those are the individuals that were stuck in that initial enrollment period trying to create their accounts,” she says.
They'll be told it's safe to try again. "In the last several days, we've made a number of upgrades to resolve issues like the one you may have encountered with our system -- and hundreds of thousands of Americans have successfully created accounts since the Marketplace opened," the email reads.
"Note: It may take a few minutes for pages to load. If this happens, it may help to clear your browser’s history and cache, close the browser completely, and try again," it cautions. "Thanks for your patience. We're committed to making sure you get the quality, affordable coverage you need."
Federal officials say they’ll release their first estimates of how many people have managed to sign up on Healthcare.gov by the end of this week. They have tried to lower expectations.
"I can tell you our early enrollment numbers will be very low," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said last week when she testified before a Senate committee.
The federal government is running the exchanges in 34 states. The rest are either running their own, or are getting federal help in operating one.
One analysis showed that 49,000 people had signed up in 12 of the states that have been running their own online exchanges. New York, one of the biggest states, said Tuesday it has signed up nearly 50,000 people.
“Since October 1st, 48,162 New Yorkers have enrolled in and 197,011 New Yorkers have completed the full application process and been determined eligible for low-cost health insurance plans,” the state department of health said in a statement.
The Congressional Budget Office has forecast that about 7 million people should sign up for health insurance on the state and federal exchanges by next year. Another 9 million or so should newly qualify for Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance plan for low income people, in states that have opted to expand the benefit.
More than 40 million Americans — 15 percent of the population — don’t have health insurance now.