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Hawaii residents face long delays in applying for Obamacare coverage

  • Pat Gee / pgee@staradvertiser.com
    Joakim Peter
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Hawaii residents are taking over an hour on average — and as long as four hours for non-English speaking people — to apply for Obamacare health coverage via the federal marketplace, healthcare.gov.

On Sunday, Obamacare coverage in Hawaii switched to the federal marketplace from the Hawaii Health Connector, the state-based exchange that is ending operations completely in 2016. The Connector is contracted by the state to assist people signing up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, but didn’t have enrollment numbers as of Friday. A spokesman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which oversees the federal exchange, said the government agency is not releasing enrollment figures at this time.

“Hawaii is at risk of being unable to process all re-enrollments. We are having significant challenges getting people enrolled on healthcare.gov,” Jeff Kissel, the Connector’s executive director, told board members at a meeting Friday. “Even if we put all the people we have on it we’re not going to get done by Jan. 31. We told CMS we’ve got to have a contingency plan.”

All of the roughly 40,000 Hawaii residents who got health insurance through the Connector must re-enroll on healthcare.gov as policies will not be automatically rolled over to the federal exchange. If a policyholder does not re-enroll, coverage will end Dec. 31. The 2016 enrollment period closes Jan. 31.

One of the major problems hindering enrollment is that automated identity verification is not working on healthcare.gov, Kissel said.

Average enrollment time for individuals is taking about one hour and 15 minutes, while the time for those signing up over the phone through the federal call center is in excess of two hours, he said.

When language assistance is required, the Connector’s so-called marketplace assisters, or outreach workers, must first wait in the federal queue for the call to be answered, then wait again for the federal call center to find the right language specialist.

“Actual enrollment time experienced under these circumstances have been up to four hours,” Kissel said, estimating that at least 30,000 with ACA policies are at risk of losing coverage at year’s end under the current wait times and limitations of healthcare.gov. “Although the federal call center operates 24 hours per day, they do not staff the special marketplace assister line during Hawaii’s operating hours.”

This has required the Connector’s outreach workers to call the regular public number for healthcare.gov where there is no marketplace assister support, which is extending application processing times.

“We’ve had to wait as long as 55 minutes on the public support line,” he said. “It’s 2013 all over again. The problems are different, but the crises are the same for our enrollees because we are required to re-enroll, unlike the 16 million people in this country who are already enrolled in healthcare.gov.”

Assuming the best-case scenario of 45 minutes per enrollment, with marketplace assisters working 8 hour days, 7 days per week, “processing 30,000 individuals is likely to take over 140 labor hour days.”

“This means that Hawaii is at risk of being unable to process the re-enrollments until sometime in March 2016,” Kissel said.

Healthcare.gov will be taken down for maintenance at 7 p.m. Eastern time (2 p.m. Hawaii time) on Saturday. 

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