By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Twenty-two days before the slated opening of Colorado’s new health exchange, the project manager issued yet another red light warning, signaling that data-sharing with Colorado’s Medicaid systems may not work by Oct. 1 and that Connect for Health Colorado managers might have to shift to contingency plans.
On top of troubles meshing with the state’s Medicaid systems, managers at Connect for Health Colorado are contending with IT snafus from the federal government.
Managers warned Colorado board members on Monday that the Social Security Administration’s data system likely will be offline for four hours every night from about 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. MST and all day on Sunday. That means consumers may have to dig out their Social Security cards and scan or mail them to exchange agents to prove they are eligible for tax subsidies. Otherwise, they’ll have to delay signing up for health insurance until the federal system is back up.
“That would frustrate me if I was told I would have to scan my Social Security card, which I probably couldn’t find,” said Dr. Mike Fallon, one of the exchange board members. “To have to mail in your Social Security card…is against everything we’re trying to do.”
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“Are the feds trying to fix the federal problem?” asked another board member, Steve ErkenBrack, president of Rocky Mountain Health Plans.
Patty Fontneau, exchange CEO and president, said that she and managers from exchanges around the country have pressed the federal government for a solution.
“This is an old database. There’s only so much that can be done,” Fontneau said. “There’s nothing we can do. Every state in the country is dealing with this.”
The latest news from Colorado’s exchange managers signals that a system originally envisioned as a real-time Travelocity-style online marketplace for public and private health insurance may not be a reality — at least in the first few months of operation.
Customers may very well need a lot of hand-holding, and signing up could be a process that takes several hours or days rather than a few minutes online.
“We are launching a new way of shopping for health insurance in Colorado. Is it going to be a huge step above what is currently available — which is nothing? Yes. Will it be the ultimate solution (on day 1) that we want eventually? No,” said Adele Work, project manager and the IT expert for Connect for Health.
While Work and other exchange managers can’t control problems with the federal data services hub, they are meeting daily with Colorado Medicaid managers to try to get the Medicaid system to synch with the exchange’s IT system.
“We continue to work to get these systems to talk to each other. It continues to be a challenge,” Fontneau said.
Fontneau and others said both sides have made significant progress, but last week — less than a month before go-live on Oct. 1 — marked the first time that Medicaid managers were able to ship data to the exchange’s system. It’s unclear if it was accurate or would mesh smoothly with the exchange’s systems. Time is running out.
Work gave an update on how multiple last-minute tasks are proceeding. The only red light warning on her update related to interoperability problems between the Medicaid systems and Connect for Health.
“That red dot (relates) to HCPF (Medicaid managers) interoperability and the amount of data we need to verify,” Work said. “Late last week, we actually received a test file from HCPF. We still have to get that data into our user interface…We’re working around the clock, night in and night out, to make that work.”
Work previously has said that she’ll have to decidedwhether to trigger contingency plans by about Sept. 15. At that point, exchange managers would “freeze and deploy,” meaning that they would halt from the planned system and deploy an emergency Band-aid fix.
Lorez Meinhold, deputy executive director for HCPF and the governor’s former point person on health reform, said she’s optimistic.
“Data has been shared and received. We’ve made a lot of progress since last time. It’s still a priority to make sure this is accurate and seamless,” Meinhold said after Monday’s health exchange meeting.
She could not promise that the two systems will mesh perfectly come Oct. 1.
“It’s going to be a work in progress,” Meinhold said. “We’re always going to be looking to improve the consumer experience.”
And the challenges are enormous right now.
“It’s the first time we’re bringing together public and private health insurance,” Meinhold said. “It’s a new endeavor.”
With respect to the problems with the federal government, Colorado’s new insurance commissioner, Marguerite Salazar, who is the former regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said trouble sometimes stems from people not knowing their own Social Security numbers.
“The regional office for SSA is really hot on this,” Salazar said. “Users often put in the wrong SSNs. They’re trying to figure out how to gently tell people you’ve got to put in the right number in the first place. Locally, they are deploying people to help. This is the second biggest lift we will have in this whole system.”
On other matters, training continues en masse. More than 1,400 private brokers have signed up for training with the health exchange. Connect for Health is also training “health coverage guides” who will be working with consumers face-to-face at assistance sites around the state.