(Bloomberg) — California, the most populous U.S. state, says the health insurance exchange it’s building as part of the Affordable Care Act will be ready on Oct. 1.
Delayed testing of computers and other missed milestones have raised questions about whether exchanges nationwide will be ready to start enrolling as many as 7 million customers early next month for subsidized private medical plans that are the centerpiece of the 2010 health law. California, the first U.S. state to pass a law to set up an exchange, wasn’t immune.
“To be ready and functional to launch is in itself a miracle,” says Diana Dooley, the chairwoman of the California Health Benefit Exchange.
Officials of the exchange, known as Covered California, said last month they were still testing the website’s technology and there was a chance consumers may not be able to buy plans on their own immediately and would instead have to go through licensed brokers or use the telephone hotline. After testing the site, exchange officials said it’s ready.
“The puzzle pieces are coming together, and some of the final pieces are being put in place,” Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a consumer advocacy group, said in a statement.
California chose WellPoint Inc. and a dozen other insurers to offer plans. About 5.3 million Californians will be eligible to buy coverage and about half may be eligible for the subsidies.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in June that computer systems for the nationwide exchange network may not be ready on time, and training for the people who will assist consumers was behind schedule. The Congressional Budget Office also raised questions in June about preparedness, citing delayed testing.
An exchange computer network must be able to loop in insurers in real-time while sharing data with the Internal Revenue Service, state tax offices, Medicaid and Medicare and other agencies in order to verify customer information.
The Obama administration has repeatedly expressed confidence that the exchanges will be ready for Oct. 1.
The $1.3 trillion overhaul of the U.S. health care system forces most Americans to obtain medical coverage from somewhere starting in 2014, and mandates that the majority of companies offer their workers a health-plan option. The law also includes measures that cut drug costs for seniors, cover children with pre-existing illnesses and let young adults stay on their parents’ plans.
Covered California earlier this month started a federally funded $80 million advertising and marketing campaign to teach people about the program and encourage them to sign up.
The California agency has sponsored 7,300 events at community centers, schools and churches throughout the state to explain the law and how to enroll. It also has trained 22,000 county workers across the state to help in screening applications for eligibility.
Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., are building their own exchanges. The other states will become partners with the federal government or leave the job to the Obama administration. By law, the markets must open in October to sell coverage that starts in January.
Republican politicians in states including Indiana, Ohio, Georgia and Florida have tried to discourage participation in the exchanges, warning consumers that premiums will rise as a result of the law’s requirement that insurers cover sick people.
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