State health care websites are failures too

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By Phil Kerpen

The federal Healthcare.gov website, serving 36 states that chose not to build their own sites, has been – to quote its boss – Kathleen Sebelius, a “debacle.”  Its estimated cost to taxpayers stands at $394 million so far and will likely rise as the “tech surge” pours millions of additional taxpayer dollars into trying to fix the site.  But federal taxpayers are on the hook for a sum more than 10 times greater – $4.3 billion – for state exchange websites.  And some of them are even more spectacular failures than the federal site.

The final cost to taxpayers of the federal site may end up well short of the $910.1 million federal taxpayers have already been forced to send to just one state, California.  Its troubled CoveredCA.com reportedly has a dodgy provider directory, delays for agent and provider certification, and its own variety of technical glitches.

Independent health broker Alison Gordon said: “The stats released are bogus… When they say they got 36,000 calls in one week, it’s because the website isn’t up and working properly.”

The flawed provider directory is a big deal, because most California plans are attempting to contain costs by offering only a very narrow network of hospitals and doctors. And California is sitting on completed applications rather than send them on to carriers, because they doubt the accuracy of their own data.   For this, federal taxpayers ponied up over $900 million dollars.

Other states have wasted obscene amounts of money on websites that function poorly or not at all.

Oregon’s website – which seems to be a black hole for the $303 million of federal tax dollars it received, but does have a bunch of quirky, hipster-inspired advertisements – is now so bad Governor John Kitzhaber is saying: “Until that aspect of the website is working, they will not be able to enroll online.”  The “aspect” of being able to enroll people is kind of the whole game.  Kitzhaber is urging Oregonians to apply with paper forms.

Colorado is also in bad shape.  “It’s painful. It’s odious. It’s embarrassing to have to go through all these questions that are not necessary if they’re going to get kicked out anyway,” said Nathan Wilkes, a board member of the Colorado exchange.  After spending $178.9 million of federal taxpayer money, Colorado is now planning to replace its deeply troubled website with a brand new one by next October.

Delaware has 890,000 people and an estimated 95,700 uninsured – and its failed website has enrolled four people.  But at least that pitiful failure “only” cost federal taxpayers $12.9 million.

That’s a bargain compared to Vermont, which is about two thirds the size of Delaware in population, but has managed to squander 13 times as much.  Vermont has a total population of 620,000 people, of whom 55,600 are estimated to be uninsured.  Yet federal taxpayers have been forced to pony up $168.1 million to Vermont’s exchange.  That’s over $3000 per uninsured Vermonter just to set up a website through which additional tax dollars will flow.

Yet even with that eye-popping largesse from federal taxpayers, the Vermont site is among the country’s worst.  Governor Peter Shumlin has pressed the panic button, invoking an emergency “safety valve” provision in state law to extend current insurance plans through the end of March, because otherwise Vermonters losing their existing plans will have no options once they confront a broken website.

Even the one supposedly successful state exchange, Kentucky, has cost federal taxpayers a bundle: $253.2 million.  And how much “success” did that quarter-billion bucks buy? While 280,000 people there have lost their existing coverage, in the first month only 5,891 people enrolled in private health plans through the exchange.

All told taxpayers are out about $5 billion for a bunch of websites that range from disappointment to debacle. It's time to put the law on pause and figure out if there's anything worth salvaging before we squander even more money.