Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99

Giving Obamacare some help

The longer it takes the Obama administration to fix the problems at Healthcare.gov, the greater the risk that some Americans will be left without health insurance coverage when the new year begins. That's why the administration has rightly, albeit belatedly, tried to provide more ways to sign up for subsidized policies online. Some of the alternatives should be embraced by the states that are running their own insurance exchanges, regardless of how well their sites are functioning. But others have real drawbacks.

At issue is whether insurers and online insurance brokers will be able to sell subsidized policies on behalf of the exchanges, which serve consumers who don't receive health benefits from their employers. Doing so requires them to connect to federal databases to determine the buyers' eligibility, calculate any appropriate subsidies and arrange payment to the insurer of their choice. To date, technical problems have prevented those systems from inter-operating. An administration spokeswoman said Tuesday that most of the problems had been solved, but insurers and insurance site operators said more work needed to be done.

Enabling health insurers to enroll customers directly through their own websites would take some of the pressure off struggling Healthcare.gov, which serves the federally-run health insurance exchanges in 36 states, and let more people sign up for coverage sooner. The downside, though, is that each insurer is likely to offer only its own policies rather than letting consumers browse through the full array of offerings at the exchange. So once Healthcare.gov is fully functional — assuming that day ever arrives — there would be little need for insurers to continue doing direct enrollments.

PHOTO ESSAY: Obamacare -- and 8 other bungled launches

By contrast, sites operated by brokers such as eHealth, Go Health and GetInsured offer shoppers the full array of plans available, as well as different ways to browse through them. That's what the 2010 healthcare law was designed to do — increase competition among insurers by making it easier for people to comparison shop. And although some consumer advocates worry that such sites won't be honest brokers, federal regulations bar them from taking payments from insurers or charging higher premiums than the exchanges do.

These sites can enroll people only in unsubsidized plans, not subsidized ones. Several state exchanges, including Covered California, have said that they plan to work with such sites in the future but that it wasn't a top priority. Nevertheless, the exchanges can only benefit from the outreach, innovation and choice that the sites bring. The biggest challenge the exchanges face is to persuade a large, diverse group of people to buy coverage, and the sites could be valuable allies on that front.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Who should and shouldn't get heart transplants -- and why?
    Who should and shouldn't get heart transplants -- and why?

    When a Georgia teenager named Anthony Stokes got himself killed not long ago, smashing up a stolen car in a police chase after supposedly taking a shot at an old lady in her house, the regret that poured out online was not for the death of the 17-year-old, but for the “waste” of the transplanted...

  • Children's Health Insurance Program deserves funding
    Children's Health Insurance Program deserves funding

    In what may be a hopelessly quixotic effort, supporters of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program are trying to persuade Congress to renew its funding almost a year in advance — and in a lame-duck session. Nevertheless, lawmakers ought to heed that call. The program plugs a troubling gap...

  • The GOP's shameful lawsuit against Obamacare
    The GOP's shameful lawsuit against Obamacare

    The lawsuit the House GOP filed against President Obama on Friday opened a new front in the attack on the 2010 healthcare law, this time targeting the subsidies that reduce deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses faced by lower-income Americans. According to the complaint, the subsidies...

  • A sensible cap on costly prescription drugs
    A sensible cap on costly prescription drugs

    To help prevent Americans from being bankrupted by medical bills, the 2010 federal healthcare law placed an annual cap on deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs imposed by health insurers. That's turned out to be a mixed blessing for Americans who suffer from certain chronic diseases,...

  • Stop the guessing game over which doctors are in-network
    Stop the guessing game over which doctors are in-network

    One of the loudest complaints about the policies sold through Covered California, the state's new health insurance exchange, is that they provide access to far fewer doctors than promised. On Wednesday, state regulators finally confirmed and quantified the problem with respect to two leading insurers,...

  • Jonathan Gruber should've been Time's Person of the Year
    Jonathan Gruber should've been Time's Person of the Year

    Jonathan Gruber should have been Time's Person of the Year. The magazine gave it to the "Ebola Fighters" instead. Good for them; they're doing God's work. Still, Gruber would have been better.