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Capitol Hill Feels Pains of Obamacare Sign-Up Troubles

Members of Congress who have gone along with the idea that they should get insurance through Obamacare’s system of exchanges are getting a stronger dose of medicine than they bargained for.

Most of the national attention has focused on the trouble with the federal portal, but for members and staff, glitches with DC Health Link are personal. Dec. 9 is the deadline for employees moving from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to the new health insurance exchange to make coverage choices for 2014.

However, an email sent to staffers Friday said that those who can prove they tried to enroll in the District’s insurance exchange by Dec. 9, but were unsuccessful in completing the process and receiving confirmation, will have until Dec. 16 to notify administrative offices.

“If at that time your enrollment cannot be confirmed, you will be provided with an opportunity to enroll through the [DC Health Link] website after December 9th, with a January 1, 2014 effective date of coverage,” according to guidance sent to staffers.

It’s impossible to get a clear picture of the scope of the problems members and staff are encountering, but an informal survey showed that people experiencing trouble also had difficulty getting through to the appropriate officials to rectify their issues.

As of Friday morning, thousands of members and staffers had already enrolled in plans offered through DC Health Link, according to Richard Sorian, director of communication, education and outreach for the exchange.

“Nearly half of those who are eligible have completed their applications and more than one-third have chosen a health plan and completed their enrollment,” he said.

“We know that traditionally many people wait until the last day or the last days of open enrollment to decide on a health plan,” Sorian said, based on experience with the FEHBP and other health programs.

When the Office of Personnel Management decided to maintain employer contributions only for employees in the new health care arrangement through the D.C. exchange, it essentially turned the local government into a federal benefits manager. That’s unlike any other Obamacare exchange in the country.

Several staffers who are not residents of the nation’s capital indicated they were having trouble enrolling through DC Health Link. This includes people who may have a home in the District but who maintain their home-state residency through the reciprocity benefits afforded to congressional aides, as well as state-based staff and residents of neighboring Maryland and Virginia.

One House GOP aide reported figuring out that she had been denied on Friday, because she maintained residency in her native state.

Sorian suggested that D.C. staff getting error messages telling them they are ineligible because of their residency may be trying to register as an individual or as a family, rather than enrolling in the Small Business Health Options Program.

“There have been no instances where people [who] have used … the SHOP have gotten a message saying you’re not eligible because you don’t live in D.C.,” he said. The problem is not with DC Health Link, Sorian emphasized. “It’s not a system error. It’s just the way that the system was used.”

However, a screenshot provided to CQ Roll Call shows the House GOP aide did apply for “Employer Sponsored Insurance.”

And late Friday, some staffers were notified that to get around some of the DC Health Link problems, they would be allowed to use paper applications for enrollment.

For Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., registering and selecting a plan through the D.C. exchange was pretty easy. His staff, however, was having trouble, he told CQ Roll Call on Thursday.

Keith Beardslee, communications director for Long, said in an email that he and his colleagues were experiencing problems with the DC Health Link portal. Beardslee said the site has crashed when selecting a health plan, “and some have been kicked out of the site when attempting to enroll in a plan.”

“Those who have managed to navigate the site and successfully sign up are finding an enrollment page that shows they are enrolled in multiple plans or not enrolled at all. The people at DC Health Link have had a difficult time answering our questions and confirming we are enrolled in a plan,” Beardslee said.

To be sure, plenty of staffers and members have reported no serious issues. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., praised the options she found through DC Health Link during a Wednesday conference call, and press aides for several senators said that things were on track in their offices.

Still, an ill-timed site outage Thursday that came as House and Senate staffers were getting assistance only served to amplify the criticism from skeptics of the system’s functionality.

According to DC Health Link, Thursday’s crash lasted for less than an hour and was the first time the site was down.

“I in no way minimize individual comments that people have made, but in terms of systemic or systematic problems, we have not detected those,” Sorian said.

DC Health Link held additional help sessions on Friday on both the House and Senate sides of the Capitol complex.

While staffers on Capitol Hill have access to in-person assistance, state staffers are reliant on getting help over the phone, and a number of staffers have reported wait times of an hour or more to speak with a representative. Some also reported dropped calls.

Sorian could not calculate the backlog of phone calls, but he said the number of daily calls that the call center received went “from about 200 to 2,000” over the past two weeks.

To meet the demand, Sorian said DC Health Link has extended call center hours. Previously the call center was open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to midnight. Now workers are answering phones seven days a week.

“It’s difficult to add capacity to a call center because you have to have trained call service representatives to answer the phone and answer the questions,” Sorian said. “We’re a little handcuffed in that area, but we are trying to expand the number of hours that it’s available and provide more and more in-person assistance.”

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