'Obamacare' contractors project confidence

Gov't contractors on new health insurance markets tell Congress things look good for launch

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Major contractors hooking up the internal plumbing of President Barack Obama's health care law projected confidence Tuesday that they will be ready to go by an Oct. 1 deadline, even though the system is still being tested.

With just three weeks to go before new state health insurance markets launch, efforts are ongoing to reliably link up government agencies, the markets themselves and private health plans.

The congressional Government Accountability Office warned this summer that with so much work left for the last minute, the timely and smooth launch of the markets could not be guaranteed. Still, with the president's image at stake, his administration is working all out to deliver.

But the administration got a boost this week when California officials said their marketplace — the nation's largest — would start enrolling uninsured people Oct. 1 as scheduled, through a mix of online access, call center support and community helpers.

Representatives of four big contractors testified in a rare joint appearance Tuesday before the House Energy and Commerce committee. Republicans who run the panel billed the hearing as a "pulse check" on Obama's law. The contractors have routinely ignored media requests to explain their work, but they could not rebuff Congress.

A private consulting firm that is advising states also separately said it expects a rocky launch, due in part to the sheer scope of technicalities in the system.

Obama's health care law will provide subsidized private coverage for middle-class people who don't get health insurance from employers. Low-income people will be steered to an expanded version of Medicaid in states that accepted it.

The insurance marketplaces that launch Oct. 1 are supposed to be the gateway to the new system. People can apply online, through a call center, in person, or on paper. Thirty percent are expected to use paper.

Coverage takes effect Jan 1. At that time, insurers will be forbidden from turning away people in poor health and virtually all Americans will be required to carry health insurance or face fines. Two recent independent studies of rates already filed by insurers indicate plenty of low-premium plans will be available, but consumers who pick them will face high deductibles and copayments.

The four contractors each said they would be ready, and said they have strong safeguards in place to protect the privacy of personal data — an issue Republicans have lately raised as a potential vulnerability.

Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president of CGI Federal, Inc., said her company is "confident" its part of the job will be ready Oct.1. The Virginia-based contractor is building the federally run marketplace, with Washington running the markets or taking the lead in 35 states.

Campbell said her company has met all the key milestones under its contract, including an operational readiness review this month.

Michael Finkel, an executive vice president of QSSI, Inc., delivered a status report on the lynchpin of the system, a federal data hub that functions as the router for verifying key eligibility data. The hub will ping federal agencies such as Social Security, Homeland Security and the Internal Revenue Service to verify identity, legal residence and income.

Finkel said his Maryland-based company expects the hub to be ready as planned. Although testing is still going on, the contractor has connected the hub to databases at federal agencies that will be used for verification and, at the other end, to a system that will transfer data to and from insurers.

John Lau, program director for Serco, said his company is staffing up to handle paper applications and other tasks. It will open a service center in Kentucky on Oct. 1, followed soon by two others in Arkansas and Missouri.

Lynn Spellecy, a corporate lawyer for Equifax Workforce Solutions, said the subsidiary of the well-known credit reporting company is ready to help verifying income and employment. It will rely on a proprietary database called The Work Number, widely used by lenders, employers and government agencies. Final testing is scheduled for Sept. 15.

But Brett Graham of the consulting firm Leavitt Partners said the markets can expect a rocky debut. He cited the system's massive complexity, timely and accurate verification of personal details for millions of people, and potential information security risks.

His company is founded by former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, and is advising many states.

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