Tests of New Features on HealthCare.gov Go to the Wire

With the Affordable Care Act’s third open enrollment period to begin in less than two weeks, federal officials are racing to fix new features of HealthCare.gov that are supposed to make it easy for consumers to find insurance plans that cover their doctors and prescription drugs.

The open enrollment period will start on schedule on Nov. 1, federal officials said Monday, but technology teams are still testing new features of the online marketplace with insurers. They have discovered many bugs, have fixed some and are still working on others, said insurers and federal health officials, who have already begun blaming each other for the problems.

Insurers said the government had not adequately tested the new search tools, which are still yielding incorrect search results in some dry runs. Administration officials said many insurers had still not submitted data on their health care providers and their drugs in the correct format.

Some insurers had expected HealthCare.gov’s “window shopping” feature to go live early this week, but because the tests are incomplete, consumers are not yet able to see the benefits, prices and other details of health insurance plans that will be offered for sale through the federal marketplace.

“We have extended the testing schedule to provide insurers with additional time to validate their data,” a Department of Health and Human Services official said by email. “We will launch window shopping closer to the launch of open enrollment.”

One of the new tools will allow consumers to search all health plans in their area for a specific doctor or hospital. Another tool will allow consumers to search health plans for a specific drug.

Consumers Union and other consumer groups said that these tools could be immensely useful to people shopping for insurance, but that the data must be reliable.

Collecting data from hundreds of health plans on tens of thousands of doctors, hospitals and drugs has proved immensely challenging, insurers and federal officials said. Under a new federal rule, insurers must submit their data to the government in a “machine readable” format. In theory, software developers can use such data to create tools that help consumers decide which health plan is best for them.

But in testing over the last month, insurers said, the data was not always displayed correctly.

Federal officials have received numerous “error reports” from insurers requesting corrections in the data that consumers will see. Insurers worry that consumers will blame them for any remaining inaccuracies.

Those involved in the latest technical scramble remember the problems that crippled HealthCare.gov in October 2013, frustrating millions of consumers. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of health and human services, may be particularly anxious, since she prides herself on managerial expertise.

Ben Wakana, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said insurers had been required to provide complete data by Oct. 1 in the proper computer format. Officials said Monday that only about half of insurers had fully complied.

Clare Krusing, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, said: “This is important data for consumers to have, but it’s even more important that the tools are working as intended. Individuals should confirm with their health plan that their specific providers and medications are included before picking their coverage during open enrollment.”

Officials and insurers are finding that the solution to one problem may create new problems.

In tests of the new system, for example, the results of a search for a particular doctor or drug on the website sometimes showed the same doctor or drug more than once, and that was not intended, officials said. Each doctor has a unique provider identification number, and each drug product has a unique identifier.

Federal officials said they thought they had fixed the problem about 10 days ago so doctors and drugs would appear just once. But more recently, insurers and federal officials said, some drugs have again shown up in duplicate in the search results. In addition, hospitals and clinics are sometimes lumped together under one name, so some do not show up in the search results.

Insurers said details for some of their health plans, like deductibles and premium surcharges for tobacco users, were displayed inaccurately in testing earlier this month. Administration officials said they believed that troubleshooters from the Department of Health and Human Services had solved this problem.

Insurers who shared their concerns requested that they not be identified by name or company because the government made confidentiality agreements a condition of testing HealthCare.gov.

“This agreement is required because testing involves access to data that is not publicly available,” an Obama administration official said.

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