For Obamacare Health Insurance Exchanges, Time Is Of The Essence

President Obama
The Obama administration announced its final rules on workplace wellness programs Wednesday. Elizabeth Cromwell/Wikimedia C

The White House is hard at work racing to meet a crucial deadline in implementing the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare reform that is scheduled to take full effect in 2014.

Together with federal agencies like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the administration must ensure that the new online health insurance exchanges are available to residents in all 50 states by October 1. The state-facilitated Exchanges, which comprise a key component in the implementation plan, will allow individuals to compare rates and benefits side-by-side when shopping for federally approved insurance plans.

Reuters reports that with less than 80 days to go, the administration has virtually no margin for error, as the slightest mistake could delay the entire operation by several days or weeks.

"The administration right now is in a triage mode. Seriously, they do not have the resources to implement all of the provisions on time," said Professor Timothy Jost, a healthcare reform expert advocate, while speaking before an oversight panel in the House of Representatives.

Some reform measures have already been postponed or scaled back in an attempt to prioritize and save time. With the deadline fast approaching, measures like the hotly disputed employer mandate — which requires most large employers to provide healthcare to full-time workers — has been deemed secondary.

"The closer you get to the actual launch, the more you focus on what is essential versus what could be second-order issues," a former administration official told reporters. "That concentrates the mind in a different kind of way, and that's what's happening here."

Instead, the administration is focusing on Obamacare's signature measures, particularly the individual mandate — the provision that requires almost all individuals with financial ability to buy health insurance or pay a fine. The new exchange is designed to ensure a quick and easy way to find the qualified plan that best fits an individual or family.

But staff and financial resources are limited. The administration, hamstrung by staunch Republican opposition, is struggling to finalize the web portal and give insurers enough time to review the new platform.

"The biggest hurdle is to get the systems up and running," said one health insurance official.

Mark Marchard, a spokesman for Washington's Health Benefit Exchange, agreed. "If you start adding or removing lines of code it could bring the whole thing down," he said. "As you add or take away pieces, you have to re-test from the beginning."

If the administration fails to implement the exchange before the deadline, open enrollment is likely to be delayed for weeks, but the reform's core provisions and attendant penalties will still kick in January 1. This would likely fuel the Republican opposition, who has repeatedly urged President Obama to defer the individual mandate.

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