By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Squirrels and software snafus have brought down NASDAQ over the years. Last week’s debilitating three-hour crash of the financial exchange appears to have been triggered by a software glitch, proving that even long-established networks can be vulnerable to catastrophe.
In Colorado, an exchange of a different sort — Connect for Health Colorado — is bracing for different disasters: blizzards, floods and severed data lines. But the most likely potential problems center on connections with Colorado’s Medicaid computers, insurance industry websites and the federal data hub, which must provide information on tax subsidies to help cut the cost of new health plans.
Two weeks ago, managers of Colorado’s health exchange said that their IT systems were not getting accurate data from state Medicaid systems. That prompted project manager Adele Work to give a red-light warning to board members, meaning that communication between the two systems was not working.
Work said this week that she expects to shift her assessment of the Medicaid system from red to yellow, meaning that there are still challenges, but that she’s hopeful the state’s systems will mesh with exchange IT systems.
Then Work joked that she better get busy prepping for other potential problems.
“I’ll have to go check on our rodent patrol,” Work said.
In both 1987 and 1994, rogue squirrels chewed through electrical lines and triggered power outages, bringing NASDAQ to its knees. The financial exchange is home to the most high-profile, high-tech stocks in the U.S. But critters outfoxed the IT experts.
While squirrels haven’t been high on Work’s list of potential problems, she and fellow managers are trying to brace for every possible failure that could dog them as they try to create an entirely new way to shop for private and public health insurance. Managers presented information to the exchange board this week on emergency preparedness and disaster recovery plans.
The exchange is an online system that aims to help people sign up for public and private health insurance coverage. Managers are saying they expect about 120,000 people to sign up in the first six months.
Among the problems they’re prepping for:
• If the bridge from the exchange to Colorado’s Medicaid system doesn’t allow people to find out if they qualify for public health insurance, exchange officials will allow paper applications, and if, necessary, will deliver them by courier to Medicaid offices. This low-tech solution is a far cry from the long promised, real-time Travelocity-style online shopping that exchanges in Colorado and around the country are supposed to deliver. Customers could also anonymously shop on the exchange website and come back at a later time when the systems are working.
• If a blizzard shuts down the Colorado Springs call center, workers plan to strap on their boots and open an alternative center in Denver.
• If an act of violence or terrorism interrupts service at the health exchange, they’ll protect lives first, then try to keep operations going.
• If the federal data services hub has outages that prevent Colorado’s health exchange from verifying an applicant’s income or citizenship, customers will have the option to shop later or provide proof of income and immigration status within 90 days. Information about when the hub will be working has been sketchy. Last week, federal officials indicated that the hub might be down for maintenance every night from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. MST. The latest updates indicate that that only one portal of the hub will be down briefly for service each night. Adele Work compared this to a single bus in a large terminal full of buses being inaccessible briefly and expects that it won’t cause major problems.
• If Connect for Health’s own system crashes, customer service agents and health coverage guides will process applications by hand.
• If a data center in Phoenix that the exchange is tapping goes down, then managers will divert data to a backup center in Philadelphia.
As exchange managers count down to their launch date — now just five weeks away — they are planning to create a command center with response teams that can handle any snafu that might arise.
Overall, Connect for Health CEO and Executive Director Patty Fontneau told board members that the exchange is braced for launch.
“The time is short. The biggest concern is the amount of time that we have to complete all of the work around testing, around training and moving people forward,” Fontneau said. “We are going to open on Oct. 1. If the question is, ‘Will there be bumps?’ The answer is probably ‘yes.’
“Our dates are tight. We’re literally going to have people working around the clock to meet these deadlines (but) we are working to have all the functionality working on Oct. 1.
“Our biggest concern is time and it’s the interoperability (with the Colorado Medicaid systems),” Fontneau said.
In addition to planning for problems, exchange managers are working on marketing. The exchange is being launched with nearly $200 million in tax dollars and will ultimately funnel thousands of new customers to private insurance companies.
“This is a sales organization. We have to sell private health insurance. It’s not sit and let them come to us. It’s how do we go get them?” Fontneau said.
Connect for Health has already been advertising at Colorado Rockies games, on TV, radio and on buses and at light-rail stations.
Spokeswoman Myung Oak Kim said interest is growing. The most popular aspect of the Connect for Health website so far is a calculator where you can see if you might qualify for a tax subsidy.
Outreach workers plan to be out in force in the coming weeks at events from the State Fair to 9 Health Fairs and will bring with them tchotchkes including sunscreen with the Connect for Health logo that says “Get Covered.”
“People need to know what is this? Is it for me? There’s a lot of learning opportunity,” Kim said.
Board Chair Gretchen Hammer underscored the long road ahead.
“Oct. 1 isn’t the finish line. Technically, its’ the starting line,” she said. “Perhaps the first six months (of enrollment) will be harder than the last six months (of preparations).”