Obama administration officials said Tuesday that they are days away from letting customers avoid the troubled healthcare.gov website and buy subsidized coverage directly from insurers.
Allowing direct enrollment into health plans could take pressure off of the federal marketplace site, which has struggled to handle even a third of its intended volume.
The option already has been available to people who knew their incomes were too high to qualify for subsidies. But the insurers' computer systems haven't been able to connect with the federal data hub that determines consumers' eligibility for financial assistance.
Instead, consumers browsing a company's website were redirected to healthcare.gov if they indicated they might be eligible for financial assistance.
Julie Bataille, communications director of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Tuesday that government workers have now made most of the technology fixes to let the government hub communicate with private insurers.
Bataille said insurers will now run checks on their systems to see if they'll work. She declined to give a time frame for the option saying only it would be "in coming days."
What's unclear is how the option will work — and whether consumers will be sufficiently informed to make a good choice. Cheryl Fish-Parcham, director of health policy with consumer group Families USA, noted, for instance, that private insurers may also be selling off-exchange plans that aren't eligible for subsidies for various reasons.
"The (insurer's) website needs to be very clear about which ones are eligible for subsidies or not," she said.
Insurance executives made direct enrollment one of their top priorities when they met with President Barack Obama last week. When the administration released federal data last week showing dismal enrollments, officials noted that getting people a new option was critical.
"We are eager to get a process of direct enrollment up and running ASAP," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said last week.
The administration's self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline for the website to work smoothly is less than two weeks away.
But the next step will be communicating the new option to consumers. Even many who don't qualify for subsidies haven't realized that they don't need to use the government site.
Ana Tucker, a 55-year-old Palm Harbor resident, started panicking after the Obamacare website locked her out for no apparent reason. Now insured through a pre-existing condition program that expires in December, Tucker must have new coverage on Jan. 1 because of her ongoing health issues.
With her deadline to purchase a plan looming, she has phoned the federal help line so often, she said, "they must have a file on me a mile long." And still, no insurance for next year.
Yet until she spoke with a Times reporter, she had no idea that, because she won't qualify for subsidies, she could shop directly through an insurer.
Despite talking to numerous people on the government help line, she said, "No one told me that."
Given the intense focus on the government's website, Tucker's is a common misperception, said Humana spokesman Mitch Lubitz.
"That's one of the things that's gotten lost," he said. "The traditional insurance market is still open."
Bypassing healthcare.gov, however, also means the loss of the website's key advantage: Allowing unbiased, side-by-side comparisons among the various insurance plans.
"If healthcare.gov was working, it'd be a no-brainer, right?" said Nancy Metcalfe, a health editor with Consumer Reports. "The first choice would be to make it work, and some people have. But if that turns out to be impossible, the next best thing is to make direct enrollment available."
Insurers are not bound by the same federal rules that require independent brokers to present customers with all their options, she said.
Metcalfe said other websites — such as ehealthinsurance.com — could fill the role of presenting multiple plans regardless of company.
Right now, however, the technical headaches associated with healthcare.gov have trickled into those private brokerage sites. EHealth, for instance, does not yet display plans offered by Florida Blue, the largest seller on the Marketplace and the only company offering plans throughout the state.
Bataille said she expects online brokers such as eHealth will soon be able to start enrolling customers in subsidized plans.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.