Health Insurance

Phone, Paper and In-Person ACA Applications All Require a Working Website

Phone, Paper and In-Person ACA Applications All Require a Working Website

Earlier this week in response to the many issues surrounding the website, the President as well as officials in HHS/CMS have pointed consumers to alternative means of enrollment. Specifically, the public has been told that they can enroll over the phone, in person or offline with a paper application.

Details now emerging confirm some suspicions we've had about these other methods Regardless of how a consumer decides to enroll, the computer systems (that run the marketplace) will be required for actual enrollment.

In our calls to the HHS call center, we've been told that enrolling over the phone is no different than the process of doing it online. The only difference is rather than entering the data and choosing the plan yourself someone on the other line does it for you. Because of the difficulties with accessing the website, many of the agents on the other line are being asked to take your information down by hand (via the paper application) and enter your data in later.

Discussions with navigators and assisters have yielded the same. Consumers, navigators, assisters and call center staff all depend on the portal and the backend computer systems to fill out applications and enroll consumers. If the system doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for them!

Traditional paper applications

Our conversations with HHS call center staff indicate that consumers may have to wait up to two weeks to find a response regarding eligibility. Surely this means that by choosing this route, consumers can bypass the problems with the portal and actually enroll. After all there must be a separate system being used. In testimony prepared for Congress, SERCO (the firm responsible for processing the paper applications) finally shines a light on how the process actually works.

"To date we have received almost 16,000 documents, about half of which are consumer applications. We have succeeded in key entering more than half of those applications and have started working on those we were unable to enter because of missing information or other problems with the application. We expect to be able to complete processing and entering those applications in the near future.

Our challenges have included coping with the performance of the portal as that is our means of entering data just as it is for the consumer. With the relatively low volumes of applications we have received thus far, this has not been a problem for us."

Even the paper applications rely on and its many components in order to apply and enroll. In fact, this really shouldn't be a surprise. After all considering the difficulty that the contractors had in building a single system to perform all these tasks, it would make less sense to try and build two computer systems to do exactly the same thing.

This raises some troubling questions. We know for a fact that these systems aren't working. What we weren't sure about until now was that basically, every application regardless of the method has to go through these systems. How many people have actually enrolled in the federal exchange if the process is basically broken for almost everyone?

In his speech on Monday, President Obama said "...while the website will ultimately be the easiest way to buy insurance through the marketplace, it isn't the only way. Now, I want to emphasize this. Even as we redouble our efforts to get the site working as well as it's supposed to, we're also redoubling our efforts to make sure you can still buy the same quality affordable insurance plans available on the marketplace the old-fashioned way, offline — either over the phone or in person."

The administration has dismissed the problems as issues with only the website, but it is clear that this is a problem for all enrollment on the marketplace. It is certainly more than just a website.

Update: We used the live chat help on and even live chat agents seem to be aware of how the system actually works even if the administration has not been as forthcoming. Our chat transcript from tonight:

[11:31:04 pm]: Welcome! You're now connected to Health Insurance Marketplace Live Chat.

Thanks for contacting us. My name is PGSUT0853. To protect your privacy, please don't provide any personal information, like Social Security Number, or any other sensitive medical or personal information.

[11:31:12 pm]: Jonathan
[11:31:34 pm]: PGSUT0853
Hello, how may I help you?

[11:31:52 pm]: Jonathan
I was speaking to someone over the phone earlier, and I just wanted to confirm something they had told me
[11:32:14 pm]: Jonathan
If I apply/enroll over the phone, the agent I will speak to is basically helping me create an account on
[11:32:14 pm]: Jonathan
is that correct?
[11:33:16 pm]: PGSUT0853
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