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8 Senate Democrats Seek Obamacare Enrollment ‘Alternative’

Eight Senate Democrats — including key leadership member Charles Schumer of New York — told the Obama administration Monday that they “continue to be troubled by the ongoing technical difficulties” with and want an alternative way for insurers and web-based brokers to enroll subsidy-eligible consumers.

Photo by Karl Eisenhower/KHN

“There are long-term advantages to providing Americans multiple ways to find and sign up for the health coverage that best meets their needs,” the senators wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius amid growing concern among Democrats about the effect of the rocky health law rollout on their re-election prospects.

On Friday, the administration announced that insurers in Ohio, Florida and Texas are testing fixes to the website that may solve the difficulties many insurers and brokers are having in enrolling consumers directly who are eligible for subsidies.

But those fixes rely on the current design — which routes applicants from private websites to specifically for subsidy determinations and then back again to the private websites.  During that re-routing, insurers and brokers are running into the same error messages and other problems experienced by consumers, preventing many from completing enrollment.

Some online brokers have called for a direct link to the federal data hub, which routes applicants’ information to agencies like the IRS and Homeland Security to verify identity, citizenship and income.

“We believe … [that] is the optimal way to leverage the private sector,” said Nate Purpura, a spokesman for online brokerage eHealth on Tuesday. In early November, the firm’s CEO made such a request to the Obama administration, noting that states running their own online marketplaces use such a direct connection.

But analysts say that security and privacy concerns may prevent the Obama administration from allowing direct access.

And insurers or brokers can’t make subsidy determinations themselves, said Washington and Lee University law professor Timothy Jost, who says the web transfer gives them a way to link to the federal market, without allowing direct access to the hub.

“The process is in place, it just needs to be fixed so it works,” Jost said.

The senators’ letter does not say specifically what alternative path they endorse, other than describing it as a way to “allow individuals to learn about their coverage options, determine their eligibility for tax credits and cost-sharing subsides and enroll though carriers and web-based entities.”

In addition to Schumer, the letter is signed by Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Warner of Virginia, Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagen of North Carolina and Bill Nelson of Florida. Shaheen, Landrieu, Warner, Udall and Hagen are up for reelection in 2014.

In recent weeks, Shaheen has called for an extension of the open enrollment period beyond the March 31 deadline, while Landrieu has introduced legislation that would require insurers to renew existing customers’ policies even if they don’t meet the law’s new standards.