BUSINESS
10/08/2014 03:49 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2014

Obamacare Officials Swear Website Will Work This Time Around

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

HealthCare.gov will be easier to use when Obamacare enrollment starts back up next month -- and not just because the website actually works now, senior health care officials told reporters Wednesday.

The biggest change: the application for insurance is now much more simple. Last year, the application was 76 pages long. This year there will be as few as 16 pages, said Andy Slavitt, principal deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency that oversees HealthCare.gov.

"The core things that the website needs to do -- getting information where it needs to go, getting people where they need to go, getting people paid -- all that stuff is working fine," said Slavitt, who worked on the HealthCare.gov rescue effort last year as a UnitedHealth Group executive and joined the agency in June.

The enrollment period on HealthCare.gov, the online gateway to Obamacare's health insurance exchanges in more than 30 states, begins on November 15 and runs through February 15.

Strong memories linger of the calamitous debut of HealthCare.gov on Oct. 1, 2013, when the balky system couldn't function, and worked very poorly for two months before a desperate overhaul by federal officials got the website working well enough to enroll more than 8 million customers by early April.

In addition to enduring a technological disaster that nearly derailed President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement, users complained of slow performance and a confusing system that required them to re-enter the same information over and over again and frequently lost data they'd already inputted. Now, the website will save information like names and income when it's entered and not ask for it again. You'll even be able to use the "back" buttons on their browsers like on any normal website, a basic function that wasn't available last time around.

Then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and other senior administration officials made similar declarations shortly before HealthCare.gov flopped last year.

It's going to be different this time, Slavitt said. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and its contractors have been testing the website and its backend more vigorously and for longer than they did last year, he said. Full testing of the system began Tuesday, which includes linking the system to health insurance companies, he said. Those tests will run for more than five weeks, compared to just 10 days of the same testing before last October, he said. After the fact, administration officials and the private contractors cited inadequate testing as a big reason the website didn't work, and why they were caught off guard when it didn't.

In a possibly telling contrast to the state of HealthCare.gov a year ago, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services officials demonstrated the new application using the actual website Wednesday. Last September, Sebelius and her deputies had only a mock-up to show only a day before enrollment began.

By the time the new enrollment period starts next month, HealthCare.gov will be able to handle more users at a time than on its busiest day from the first sign-up period, March 31, when simultaneous visitors peaked at 125,000, Slavitt said. Slavitt wouldn't speculate what the total capacity would be.

One key difference between this year's assurances and last year's is that HealthCare.gov already exists and already has enrolled millions of people. Since July, more than 20,000 people have signed up using the new application, Slavitt said. Outside the annual enrollment period, people are permitted to use the health insurance exchanges if their life circumstances change, like if they get married or lose job-based health benefits.

About 70 percent of HealthCare.gov applicants will use the simplified application when yearly sign-ups begin next month, Slavitt said. The remainder are people whose household situations require them to answer additional questions. Examples could include families where a child qualifies for the federal-state Children's Health Insurance Program while the parents are eligible for subsidized private insurance, or families with mixed immigration status.

Not that HealthCare.gov is about to rival Amazon.com or other commercial websites. It'll still be impossible to search health plans by what doctors they include or what drugs they cover, so consumers will have to seek that information from the insurance companies instead.

The enrollment period for 2015 health insurance begins in just over a month, and the challenges are significant well beyond the website.

There are more than 7 million current paid enrollees in private health plans who must re-enroll. Even though these customers will automatically see their current plans extended, if still available, many consumers will find better deals if they shop around because prices for health insurance on the Obamacare exchanges will vary greatly. Nationwide, the average increase will be 6 percent, but also will range from a 22% decrease to a 35% increase, according to data compiled by the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The Congressional Budget Office projects 13 million people will have health insurance obtained via an exchange next year.

See a slideshow demonstration of the new application process on HealthCare.gov

HealthCare.gov Streamlined For New Sign-Ups

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