BUSINESS
11/19/2013 06:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2013

Obama Administration Maps Out Detour Around HealthCare.gov

WASHINGTON -- People interested in buying health insurance under Obamacare could soon skip the HealthCare.gov website and apply for coverage and financial assistance directly with private insurance companies and online brokers, the Obama administration said Tuesday, in its latest effort to work around the faulty website.

Health insurers and online brokers like eHealth have always sought the ability to let consumers to apply for subsidies to cut their health insurance costs without using HealthCare.gov, the online portal to health coverage in more than 30 states. But technological snafus with the system linking insurers to the federal government ruled out that option, even as HealthCare.gov itself has remained problematic.

Now these insurance issuers and brokers are about to get what they want. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is close to providing insurers with the technological capability to also take subsidy applications, as well as sell plans to customers, spokeswoman Julie Bataille said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

"We've put in place a number of the most important fixes. This is something that issuers are going to look at within the context of their own systems, and I believe that, in the coming days, as they make their own assessments, they will make determinations about what may be appropriate," she said.

Activating the "direct enrollment" option would free health insurers and online brokers to accept applications from people who are eligible for subsidies, thus widening the potential universe of people who wouldn't need to use HealthCare.gov to get health insurance. Although going directly to a health insurance company or a private broker would mean consumers couldn't comparison shop for all available options, it would make it easier to obtain coverage for next year in advance of the Dec. 15 deadline to choose a plan that will be in place on New Year's Day. The full enrollment period runs until March 31.

Health insurance consumers have been able to purchase coverage directly from a carrier or an online broker all along, but these options were limited to people who weren't eligible for financial assistance, or decided to forego it.

At present, the health insurance exchanges, including those run by states and the federal government, are the only way to obtain the tax credits that are available to people earning between the poverty level and four times that amount, or about $11,500 to $46,000 for a single person. Obamacare enrollment so far has fallen below expectations, with just over 100,000 people signing up for health coverage during the first month of sign-ups, which started Oct. 1.

The Affordable Care Act already permitted direct enrollment for consumers, but the technology hasn't yet been switched on. And the feature likely won't be added to health insurance company websites right away.

"For subsidy-eligible consumers, we will continue to direct them to HealthCare.gov to get subsidy verification. We'll continue to engage in discussions about this issue," Lauren Perlstein, a spokeswoman for Health Care Service Corp., wrote in an email. Health Care Service Corp. operates Blue Cross Blue Shield companies in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Other health insurance companies and trade associations contacted by email Tuesday wouldn't comment on Bataille's remarks or didn't respond.

Online brokers eHealth, Go Health and about 30 others also will soon have this capability, Bataille said. "We believe that they are on track to begin their transactions as soon as possible. This is something that, obviously, they will make determinations about individually as they see how their system is interacting with ours, and they make their own assessments about the fixes necessary for them to begin their work."

eHealth and other brokers forged agreements this summer allowing them to enroll exchange consumers, but they have been stymied by federal technical problems since the exchanges opened.

eHealth spokesman Nate Purpura said enrollment of subsidy-eligible consumers remains a work in progress. "eHealth Inc. has been working closely with CMS to implement a technology solution that would allow us to enroll qualified individuals into qualified health plans through HealthCare.gov. We are still in the process of confirming that the fixes have been made that will provide a stable and consumer-friendly user experience," he wrote in an email.

The Obama administration has been looking for ways to facilitate sign-ups beyond the troubled HealthCare.gov, including paper and telephone applications for financial assistance. On Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said direct enrollment with insurers would be one of those means. President Barack Obama met with health insurance industry executives on Friday, following his announcement that state regulators and insurers could opt to renew policies that are being canceled as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

Obama said again Tuesday that HealthCare.gov would be working more smoothly for most people by the end of the month.

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