Ask Emily: Covered California’s ‘reset’ problem

February 25, 2014 

Emily Bazar writes “Ask Emily,” a biweekly column for the CHCF Center for Health Reporting, answering questions about the Affordable Care Act. Read all her columns at sacbee.com/askemily.

CHCF CENTER FOR HEALTH REPORTING

Ask Emily is a biweekly column by Emily Bazar of the CHCF Center for Health Reporting, answering questions about the Affordable Care Act. Read all her columns at sacbee.com/askemily.

Q: What was my password again?

$359 million.

That’s how much the state of California awarded Accenture to build and run CoveredCA.com, the insurance exchange website that has changed the way many of us buy health plans.

When it announced the contract in 2012, Covered California boasted that Accenture would develop a “consumer-friendly web portal” that would “simplify and streamline” the health insurance application process under Obamacare.

There must be another definition of “consumer-friendly” I’m not familiar with.

Here we are at the end of February. There’s only one month left in Obamacare’s inaugural open-enrollment period, which ends March 31, and Californians are still struggling with the website, including some of its basic functions.

In today’s column, I’m focusing on a seemingly minor technical issue that has caused countless Californians frustration, confusion and lost time.

It has to do with online passwords, the bane of 21st century existence. If you’re like me, you have signed up on dozens of online shopping, banking and news websites, trying desperately to keep track of various usernames, passwords, PINS and security questions.

Despite my best efforts, I forget or lose passwords. But in almost every case, I just click the “Forget your password?” link on most websites and reset my password online.

You can’t do that on CoveredCA.com.

Instead, you have to call the jammed customer service number (800-300-1506) and wait on hold until someone can help. If the customer service agents can’t reset the password – which has been the rule rather than the exception – they bring in the big guns from the IT department to make the fix.

All of this can take hours, days or weeks to resolve, judging by the dozens of complaints lodged on Covered California’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. And you can’t sign up for a health plan online without being signed into your account.

One consumer who wrestled with the password reset is Sean Knox, 33, a San Francisco resident who also is a web engineer. That means he builds and codes websites for a living.

How appropriate.

Knox gave up on CoveredCA.com in mid-February after trying, unsuccessfully, to reset his password.

He tried to reset it online, which of course led to a dead end. Then, over 11 days, he talked to multiple Covered California agents after hours on hold. Then he took his complaints to Twitter. Then to Facebook. Then he was assured the problem was fixed, though it was not. And then he went through it all again. And again.

Facing the Feb. 15 deadline to buy insurance that would kick in on March 1, Knox bailed out of the health insurance exchange altogether and bought a plan on the private market.

“It’s 2014. I’m an engineer. I know exactly what health plan I want. I have money to buy it,” Knox says. “And yet I’m hamstrung by the most basic process on any website that has been rolled out in the last 15 years.”

That, my fellow Californians, is what $359 million buys you.

An Accenture spokesman declined to answer questions and directed me to Covered California’s press office.

I went back and forth with three different Covered California spokespeople to learn that Covered California knows there’s a problem and is working on improvements.

By the time this column is published, says spokesman Larry Hicks, customer service agents will have been trained on how to reset passwords and can help consumers through the process.

Better late than never.

Why couldn’t they just do it themselves online in the first place? “Our password reset procedure was made with an abundance of caution to assure persons requesting the resets were the true holders of the accounts,” Hicks says. “Privacy is paramount for us.”

Those banks, brokerage firms, medical groups and other businesses that allow consumers to change their passwords online? They must hate privacy.

In some ways, Knox is lucky. His income is too high for him to qualify for tax credits through Covered California, so it didn’t make a financial difference for him to jump into the private market, which offers the same plans at the same prices.

But not everyone has that option. If your income qualifies you for tax credits, which reduce the cost of your monthly premiums, you can only get them by purchasing a plan through Covered California.

Given the inevitable bumps associated with the debut of any new law – not to mention a law of this size and complexity – did Covered California have to load another confusion onto consumers’ shoulders?

This one is just another hassle for an already frazzled public to endure as it tries to comply with the law. One that could have been easily avoided.

Knox says it well: “There are all these complex requirements to buy health insurance, and yet we can’t even get our passwords reset.”

Questions for Emily: AskEmily@usc.edu

Learn more about Emily here .

The CHCF Center for Health Reporting partners with news organizations to cover California health policy. Located at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism , it is funded by the nonpartisan California HealthCare Foundation .

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