By Juliet Eilperin and Amy Goldstein
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The White House is increasing its reliance on insurers by accepting their technical help in efforts to repair the problem-ridden online health insurance marketplace and prioritizing consumers' ability to buy plans directly from the carriers.
The Obama administration's broader cooperation with insurers is a tacit acknowledgment that the federal insurance exchange — fraught with software and hardware flaws that have frustrated many Americans trying to buy coverage — might not be working smoothly by the target date of Nov. 30, according to several health experts familiar with the administration's thinking.
White House officials reject the idea that the strategy represents a contingency plan in the event that the online system continues to falter.
"We are working 24-7 to ensure that the site is working smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of November," said Chris Jennings, deputy assistant to the president for health policy. He said the administration remains confident that the site, HealthCare.gov, will be ready by the end of the month and that the White House always envisioned insurers' direct enrollment of customers would be important to the law's success.
The government has said for months that consumers would be able to go directly to insurance companies to buy the health plans offered on the exchange. But this was always imagined as a secondary route, along with call centers and in-person enrollment assistants.
If insurers' sites became a main way to buy coverage, it would undermine the side-by-side comparison shopping — as is used on travel websites such Kayak — that HealthCare.gov is meant to promote. That's because individual insurers are not obligated to tell their customers about competing health plans available. They are required only to advise consumers that other plans exist and can be found on HealthCare.gov.