White House defends use of alternatives to

Oct. 28, 2013, a screenshot of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' main landing web page for
Oct. 28, 2013, a screenshot of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' main landing web page for AP

The Obama administration on Monday defended its request that consumers frustrated with the malfunctioning website apply for coverage by phone after it emerged that customer service operators must still use the troubled website to assist callers.

The issue flared up at Monday’s White House news briefing after ABC News reported that an Oct. 11 memo from the Department of Health and Human Services claimed that all applications – whether submitted by phone, paper or online – are processed through the website, which serves as the entry portal for the federal health insurance marketplace.

That means frustrated users aren’t bypassing the website when they use the HHS call center or submit paper applications. They’re merely leaving it to someone else – who’d still have to navigate a frequently problem-plagued system – to create an account for them.

“The same portal is used to determine eligibility no matter how the application is submitted,” read an HHS memo obtained by ABC News. “The paper applications allow people to feel like they are moving forward in the process and provides another option. At the end of the day, we are all stuck in the same queue.”

For weeks, President Barack Obama and his aides have touted the alternative enrollment methods, rarely mentioning that they ultimately go through the website.

Julie Bataille, the communications director for HHS’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, wouldn’t address the accuracy of the memo Monday, saying only that “notes are not official documents.” In a phone briefing, she said callers had, in fact, been able to apply and enroll over the phone. Bataille maintained that the site should be functioning properly for the vast majority of users by the end of November.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the alternative enrollment methods could save time for consumers.

“The whole point was to alleviate the frustration that so many Americans were having online and to take that frustration away from them and allow a live person at a call-in center to handle their questions and their sign-ups and their enrollment for them,” he said at his daily briefing.

But Carney, pushing back against a series of aggressive questions, said the administration had always made it clear that the website would still be used.

“You call up, you give your information, you get the questions answered that you need answered and then . . . they take over from there, and then you find out, you know, what you’re eligible for and the process goes forward,” he said.

Carney and Bataille said the administration wasn’t considering taking down the website until it could be fixed, as some members of Congress have suggested.

On Monday, the website went down unexpectedly for 90 minutes, leaving users unable to apply for and enroll in coverage. The system’s data hub, which verifies applicant information for all the nation’s health marketplaces, remained fully functional during the outage, Bataille said.

“We are clearly frustrated with the current status of the site,” she said, “but is fixable.”

The reason for Monday’s outage appears to be a server overload problem, but the root cause hasn’t been confirmed, said Andrew Slavitt, an executive vice president at the health care-systems consultant Optum who’s a member of the team of government and private industry experts working to fix the website.

Slavitt, who was on the media call with Bataille, said Monday’s outage, which occurred about 12:40 p.m. EST, wasn’t a rare occurrence and that other unexpected outages probably would happen while repairs to the site were underway. The website was down for a total of two full days last week – including 12 hours over the weekend – for repairs after problems with an outside contractor.

Bataille said the weekend repairs allowed more than 12 site fixes, including hardware upgrades and improvements to systems that transmit information to insurers. The outages don’t appear to be the work of sabotage or the result of hackers trying to attack the system, she said.

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