WASHINGTON — The White House is increasing its reliance on private insurers by accepting their technical help 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 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.
White House officials reject the idea that the strategy represents a contingency plan if 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. The White House envisioned that insurers’ direct enrollment of customers would be important to the law’s success, Mr. Jennings said.
The government has said for months that consumers could go directly to insurance companies to buy the plans offered on the exchange. But this option was considered a secondary route, along with call centers and in-person enrollment assistants.
If insurers’ sites are a main way to buy coverage, it would undermine the side-by-side comparison shopping that HealthCare.gov is meant to promote.
Insurers are eager to take on a larger role.
But they, like consumers, have been stymied by the online system’s technical problems.
During one step in enrolling customers — determining whether their income qualifies them for government help with paying for health plans — insurers must connect to part of the federal online system.
That part does not work.
White House officials and insurance industry leaders have been talking about how to solve this problem, perhaps on a temporary basis, and insurers are insisting that they be allowed to keep any extra subsidy money they might accidentally be paid, said people familiar with these discussions.
The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires most Americans to have health insurance.
December is a vital time. The uninsured must buy plans by Dec. 15 to be covered by Jan. 1, the date the requirement begins.
Those who do not buy coverage by March 31 face financial penalties. The question is whether everyone can meet those requirements if the site’s problems persist.
The possibility of using health plans to sign up large numbers of the uninsured is a strategy by the administration and the insurance industry to deflect growing pressure from Capitol Hill.
Even some Democrats want to give people more time.
Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) introduced legislation late last week that would eliminate the tax penalty for 2014, imposing a higher fine in 2015.
Industry leaders have warned that firms would end up with mainly sicker people signing up early on. A greater reliance on the industry to sign up customers could prompt ads that might be counter to the administration’s messaging.