At a briefing with journalists today at the White House, senior officials from the White House’s Affordable Care Act implementation team weren’t making any concrete promises about when HealthCare.gov would be fully operational. They swore that improving the user experience was priority No. 1 now that the shutdown is over and the threat of default is off the table, but they also emphasized the fact that consumer-facing websites are to some extent a work that’s perennially in progress.
They also talked up the utility of nonwebsite entry points into the system, including the ability to mail a paper application form in and most notably to call in.
Putting a positive spin on things, they said that people appear to really value the opportunity to talk something as important as health insurance over with an actual human being. Still, it’s fairly obvious that heavy reliance on phone calls was not part of Plan A for the rollout. One major tell is that the phone number—1-800-318-2596—is just a random string of digits rather than something more memorable. Health and Human Services runs a 1-800-MEDICARE phone number for questions about Medicare, but they didn’t get 1-800-OBAMACARE or anything similar.
Now one question I had about this new emphasis on “alternate pathways” is whether that really solves the problem. After all, if you apply on the phone, that just means someone is on the other side of the phone call punching information into a computer. The officials assure us that the “data hub” that a phone answerer would be querying to run this part of the application does in fact work, so people should be able to sign up by phone regardless of problems with the customer-facing website. On the other hand, there are obviously substantial bottlenecks in terms of the actual number of people available to answer calls. This just isn’t the way the administration anticipated people signing up, and to get real volume of people in plans, they’re going to need to make the website work.