WASHINGTON -- Nearly 700,000 applications for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act have been completed, administration officials said Thursday, although they would not release data on how many people successfully enrolled in insurance plans despite problems with the online marketplace.
The updated figure comes as administration officials tried to respond to complaints and finger-pointing from the contractors who built the troubled website, www.healthcare.gov. Testifying before a House committee Thursday, the contractors blamed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which essentially was project manager, for not conducting complete “end-to-end” testing of the site until two weeks before the Oct. 1 launch date.
On a call with reporters, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services officials did not dispute that account.
“Due to a compressed time frame, this system just wasn't tested enough, especially for high volumes,” said spokeswoman Julie Bataille.
Asked why time was short for a system more than three years in the making, Bataille cited the “complexity of the system.”
“Obviously, when you put all of those pieces in place over a period of time, I think it is no surprise to anyone that we are operating under a compressed time frame to get all of that done and in order to do the rigorous testing that was needed,” she said.
Officials also acknowledged they were responsible for the decision some experts have isolated as the pivotal design flaw -- a requirement that visitors to the site create accounts before shopping for insurance plans. Republicans have charged that the administration scrapped a so-called “window shopping” function because officials were worried users would get sticker shock and turn away from Obamacare.
Bataille said the decision was made to focus resources on other parts of the site, including the online application, the system that determines eligibility for tax credits and the enrollment process.
“We made a business decision to prioritize resources so that that functionality would be live and available for consumers on Oct. 1st,” she said.
Three weeks into the website rollout, the administration has entered the damage-control phase. As Obama allies are growing increasingly restless over how the White House has handled the fallout, officials have stepped up efforts to disclose the site’s problems and emphasize what works.
On what she said would be a regular press briefing, Bataille said some parts of the website were functioning well. The data hub that shares information with state-run insurance exchanges and helps determine eligibility for tax credits “is working just as it should,” she said, and changes to the account creation system have allowed it to run more smoothly.
“We're now seeing many more consumers successfully completing this first account creation step without waiting and moving into the rest of the application and plan selection process,” she said.
But Bataille acknowledged that problems persist in the next step. Users trying to complete applications and then shop for plans are still experiencing blank pages, error messages and frozen screens.
The 700,000 people who have completed the application process include those who used state-run marketplaces, she said. The administration has said it will release the number of people who have enrolled in plans “on a monthly basis.”
Officials were also vague about the timing of another issue. White House officials confirmed Wednesday that they planned to push back the deadline for enrolling in an insurance plan without paying the tax penalty. Those who enroll before March 31 – the end of the open enrollment process – will not face the penalty, officials said, even though those consumers would not meet the law’s requirement that people hold insurance for nine consecutive months or be hit with a tax. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that he believed the change could be made administratively and did not require new congressional action.
The Health and Human Services Department will be issuing new guidance on the deadlines “soon,” Bataille said.