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Capitol Hill Feels Pains of Obamacare Sign-Up Troubles

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Representatives from DC Health Link were on hand at the Hart Senate Office Building this week to help Senate employees with health insurance enrollment problems.

Sorian suggested that D.C. staff getting error messages telling them they are ineligible because of their residency may be trying to register as an individual or as a family, rather than enrolling in the Small Business Health Options Program.

“There have been no instances where people [who] have used ... the SHOP have gotten a message saying you’re not eligible because you don’t live in D.C.,” he said. The problem is not with DC Health Link, Sorian emphasized. “It’s not a system error. It’s just the way that the system was used.”

However, a screenshot provided to CQ Roll Call shows the House GOP aide did apply for “Employer Sponsored Insurance.”

And late Friday, some staffers were notified that to get around some of the DC Health Link problems, they would be allowed to use paper applications for enrollment.

For Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., registering and selecting a plan through the D.C. exchange was pretty easy. His staff, however, was having trouble, he told CQ Roll Call on Thursday.

Keith Beardslee, communications director for Long, said in an email that he and his colleagues were experiencing problems with the DC Health Link portal. Beardslee said the site has crashed when selecting a health plan, “and some have been kicked out of the site when attempting to enroll in a plan.”

“Those who have managed to navigate the site and successfully sign up are finding an enrollment page that shows they are enrolled in multiple plans or not enrolled at all. The people at DC Health Link have had a difficult time answering our questions and confirming we are enrolled in a plan,” Beardslee said.

To be sure, plenty of staffers and members have reported no serious issues. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., praised the options she found through DC Health Link during a Wednesday conference call, and press aides for several senators said that things were on track in their offices.

Still, an ill-timed site outage Thursday that came as House and Senate staffers were getting assistance only served to amplify the criticism from skeptics of the system’s functionality.

According to DC Health Link, Thursday’s crash lasted for less than an hour and was the first time the site was down.

“I in no way minimize individual comments that people have made, but in terms of systemic or systematic problems, we have not detected those,” Sorian said.

DC Health Link held additional help sessions on Friday on both the House and Senate sides of the Capitol complex.

While staffers on Capitol Hill have access to in-person assistance, state staffers are reliant on getting help over the phone, and a number of staffers have reported wait times of an hour or more to speak with a representative. Some also reported dropped calls.

Sorian could not calculate the backlog of phone calls, but he said the number of daily calls that the call center received went “from about 200 to 2,000” over the past two weeks.

To meet the demand, Sorian said DC Health Link has extended call center hours. Previously the call center was open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to midnight. Now workers are answering phones seven days a week.

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