By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. insurers fear that a surge in enrollments on the revamped government-run healthcare website could create more problems for insurance companies already struggling with error-filled applications for coverage three weeks before a sign-up deadline.
In what could become the next major headache for President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy, a group representing leading U.S. insurers said on Tuesday that technology fixes that will enable millions of people to sign on to HealthCare.gov have not fully addressed faulty data that the site has been sending these companies about their new enrollees.
The problems include enrollment forms with erroneous personal information and duplicate or missing applications. In some cases, consumers who believe they have signed up may not have a file with the insurer.
The warning coincided with an effort by Obama to win back support for the healthcare overhaul after the website's disastrous October 1 debut sent his job approval ratings plummeting and threatened to damage fellow Democrats in next year's congressional elections.
The website, which allows consumers to shop for insurance policies, is a main component of the 2010 Affordable Care Act aimed at providing health benefits to millions of uninsured Americans.
Daniel Durham, a vice president for policy and regulatory affairs at America's Health Insurance Plans, a lobby group for health insurers, said companies were regularly receiving faulty enrollment forms. He did not give details on how frequently the errors were appearing.
"So far we've been able to deal with these issues because there's been relatively low volume," Durham said. "But now that the floodgates are open at the front end... we're going to see a lot more volume. And health plans just don't have the personnel to do all this manually."
Durham said insurers need "clean" enrollment files so they can be processed by the December 23 deadline for coverage to start on January 1.
'THIS LAW IS WORKING'
The White House said that more than a million people had visited HealthCare.gov on Monday, the first day after major technical repairs to the website. It did not say how many people had completed applications and enrolled in new plans.
The botched rollout of Obamacare has hurt the popularity of the initiative. Opposition to the healthcare law stood at 59 percent in a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in mid-November.
Obama on Tuesday encouraged Americans to look beyond the website and recognize the benefits of the law known as Obamacare. "The bottom line is this law is working and will work into the future. People want the financial stability of health insurance," Obama said in a speech.
While Obama and his aides have been focusing on fixing the most visible problems with the website, insurers say that serious technical issues are still plaguing the so-called "back end" of the portal that transmits important user information to insurance companies.
"It's a real problem for plans when the enrollment file never comes over, and then you get the consumer calling, and the plan has no record of that individual," Durham said at a forum organized by Georgetown University and law firm Arent Fox. "Time is short. January 1 is coming around fairly quickly here."
Cynthia Michener, spokeswoman for Aetna Inc, the third-largest U.S. insurer, said the company is continuing to receive flawed enrollment files, including duplicate records.
She also said that while there have been improvements with the website's performance, Aetna is helping "identify, prioritize and test additional issues."
White House spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, said the government was working with experts to make sure every enrollment form on the site is accurate.
"We believe that and are confident that they will be able to ensure that accuracy in time for the January 1st beginning of coverage for those who have signed up for it," he said.
CHANGING THE MESSAGE
Republicans in Congress and conservative groups have attacked the law relentlessly as an example of government overreach, criticism that has snowballed since the problems with HealthCare.gov.
Obama's job approval rating is at historic lows. A Reuters-Ipsos poll released on Tuesday showed his overall job approval rating at 38 percent, with 63 percent of respondents saying the country is on the wrong track. The November 29-December 3 poll of 1,494 Americans is accurate to plus or minus 2.6 percentage points for all adults.
The administration is trying to win back disgruntled Democrats facing a backlash from the healthcare debacle when they run for re-election next year in Congress.
Democrats in the House of Representatives who met with White House officials on Tuesday said they plan to counter Republican attacks on the law with stories about people it has helped.
Some Democrats, however, remain frustrated by the botched rollout. "I'm glad they're working on it but I'm still very disappointed. I'm still absolutely bewildered as to why they weren't ready," said Representative Carol Shea-Porter, Democrat from New Hampshire.
The federal website was supposed to make it easy to buy health insurance in 36 states. Other states run their own online marketplaces.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Caren Bohan, Caroline Humer and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Grant McCool)