Obamacare Signups Return With More Plans But Concerns About Software, Cost, Care Options

The ObamaCare exchanges that opened for business last fall to disastrous consequence are expected to be largely improved with better technology and more insurance plans when they re-open next month, but critics are still raising concerns about consumer costs and choices.

The Department of Health and Human Services said in a preliminary report released Sept. 23 that the number of insurers has increased by 25 percent, which officials argue should lower premium costs through competition, in addition to offering customers more choices.

“When consumers have more choices, we all benefit,” agency Director Sylvia Burwell said upon release of the progress report. “In terms of affordability, access and quality, (the) news is very encouraging. It’s a real sign the Affordable Care Act is working.”

The eight-page report shows that Americans when they start shopping Nov. 15 at the 36 federally-facilitated marketplaces can now choose from 248 qualified health plans, compared to 191 last year. Sixty-seven new insurers joined the exchanges, but 10 withdrew for a net increase of 57.

States under the federal program and with the biggest increases were Indiana, with five, followed by Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio and Texas with four. Eight states had zero additional choices and no state had fewer choices.

Georgia GOP Rep. Tom Price, a doctor and member of the Congressional Health Care Caucus, acknowledged Thursday that ObamaCare has made some progress toward reducing federal spending on millions of uninsured Americans by helping many get insurance but said consumer costs remain too high.

“They have bent the cost curve,” he told FoxNews.com. “But who’s still spending more here? Seniors and the rest of Americans are.”

Moreover, Price said, the plans aren’t providing Americans with the coverage choices they want and need.

“You can have all of the plans you want,” he said. “But what’s happening is the networks are forcing people into places they don’t want to go. That’s the important point. That’s the consequence of having a managed health-care plan.”

The report last week also included information on eight of the 14 state-run sites. It showed 67 companies now offering insurance policies, compared to 61 in 2014. Ten new companies entered the competition but four withdrew.

Washington gained the most, with two, and California was the only state to have less, minus two.

However, the additions are essentially existing, private insurance companies going into new states, not new companies offering policies for the first time, a source told FoxNews.com.

The massive problems faced by online ObamaCare shoppers when the exchanges debuted Oct. 1, 2013, and in the ensuing weeks — including system crashes, error messages, incorrect information and lost applications — appear largely to have been fixed in roughly the past 12 months.

President Obama, angry and “frustrated” by the start of arguably his biggest legislative accomplishment, made sure the software problems were essentially fixed after the first several weeks by hiring industry experts to work around the clock to write better computer code and fix software bugs.

The report last week included no update about the federal site — HealthCare.gov.

A source said federal officials are scheduled to release such information in the coming days.

“They’re scared to death about what they know … about the web platform,” Price said. “They know the technology is not up to par.”

He argued that the so-call “front end” of the computer system that allows Americans to buy insurance online might be largely improved, but the back end that connects patients’ insurance information to health-care providers remains a “terrible problem for doctors and hospitals.”

The president crafted the legislation to help an estimated 30 million uninsured Americans get coverage.

The 2010 law, officially titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also offers financial assistance to Americans buying insurance through exchanges and made insurance available to people previously denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition.

The administration reached its goal of enrolling 6 million people by its self-imposed March 31 deadline. And right now, 7.3 million people have enrolled in marketplace plans, paid their premiums and have access to insurance, Burwell said last week in a speech at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank.

Meanwhile, some states continue to struggle with their site, most notably Oregon and Maryland.

Software bugs and other technical problems kept Oregon from fully enrolling a single customer online.

State official conceded this spring that the Cover Oregon site, built in part with roughly $30 million in federal grants, was unfixable and agreed to move the operation to the federal exchange. The problems and transition is estimated to cost state and federal taxpayers at least an additional $85 million — including $50 million to manually enroll thousands of customers and $35 million to Deloitte Consulting to salvage the faulty technology.

Despite the problems, Cover Oregon still enrolled more than 354,000 people through a “hybrid manual-automated process,” spokeswoman Ariane Holm said earlier this week.

Maryland’s state-run site crashed soon after going online last year. Officials have decided to replace the technology, instead of fixing the system or like Oregon joining the federal exchange system. They have hired Deloitte, which also has successfully run the Connecticut exchange. But the Maryland fiasco last year remains the subject of an inspector general audit.

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