Support The Wire

‘Who’s Getting Fired?’ Lawmaker Asks Health Benefit Exchange CEO After Recent Glitch

Some Washington lawmakers on Tuesday expressed obvious displeasure in the state’s Health Benefit Exchange, the marketplace more than 1 million residents have used to sign up for health care under the Affordable Care Act, after the exchange’s website went down on Saturday, the first day of the new enrollment period.

Officials with the exchange blamed a glitch in their system that caused subsidies for low-income enrollees to calculate incorrectly, requiring the site to be taken down for fixes over the weekend, but that drew the frustration of Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, during a meeting of the Joint Select Committee on Health Care Oversight Tuesday.

“We had gotten reassurances,” Cody said. “Who’s getting fired? Our contractor? This is just not acceptable.”

Pam MacEwan, chief of staff for the Health Benefit Exchange, said she shared Cody’s frustration, and blamed problems in data coordination between the exchange and the Department of Social and Health Services. The website was back up Sunday morning, and more than 5,000 people have created new accounts with the exchange, she said.

About 1.3 million residents have enrolled in coverage through the exchange, which expects another 200,000 residents to sign up in the new enrollment period, the second under the federal law commonly referred to as Obamacare.

Exchange CEO Richard Onizuka testified before the committee that the exchange has been among the more successful for states nationwide, with the fourth largest drop in the number of uninsured residents. Rate increases are going to be modest in some areas of the state, at only 2 to 3 percent, while others will see decreases, he said.

But the exchange has also been plagued by other difficulties, including thousands of enrollees who paid for their plans, but their accounts were handled in error, as Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, put it. Those enrollees didn’t receive coverage despite the payments, because the money seemingly didn’t reach their carriers.

Schmick said 24,000 of these residents were originally listed as having their accounts in error, and asked how many remained. Onizuka said only 1,500 remained, because the exchange has devoted more staff time, done more code fixes, and accounting reviews.

Part of the problem, he said, was transmission of files detailing enrollees’ payment and enrollment information between the exchange and the carriers. Onizuka said exchange officials and carriers have had numerous meetings to resolve the problem, which requires a lengthy fix because programmers have to make retroactive updates to enrollees’ data.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, asked how many people calling into the exchange were Medicaid members, and MacEwan said she didn’t have the data for the new enrollment period. Keiser asked if it would be easier to send them directly to DSHS.

“It seems like you are getting overwhelmed with a lot of the hand-holding,” Keiser said.

MacEwan said they were at first when enrollment began last fall, but have increased staff at the exchange’s call centers to more than 500 employees. The exchange has asked the Legislature to lift its spending cap from $80 million in the next two-year biennium to $147 million, in part to ensure adequate staffing. The budget increase wasn’t mentioned before the Joint Select Committee Tuesday.

Onizuka said the exchange has also been hampered because carriers don’t format their data the same way the exchange does, so programmers are working to harmonize the metrics between them. More code fixes for that last group of 1,500 enrollees is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.

The blunders the exchange has experienced thus far has not won it friends in key places throughout state government, as Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler has expressed frustration with their systems over the last several months, and Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and chair of the House Finance Committee, has said he’s skeptical of its request to increase its next budget so dramatically.

Exchange Board member Bill Hinkle sounded off in frustration Tuesday night, telling King 5 News, “You can’t understand the frustration as a board member that I have. I would say it’s time for a change.”

The Exchange’s Board of Directors meets Wednesday for its regular monthly meeting in SeaTac.

But Onizuka said that, despite the problems, he shared the leaders’ frustration and wanted to resolve the issues and move forward.

“We’re absolutely concerned about fixing these,” Onizuka said.

Your support matters.

Public service journalism is important today as ever. If you get something from our coverage, please consider making a donation to support our work. Thanks for reading our stuff.