Since problems first impacted the troubled website, officials have repeatedly told frustrated consumers that they may turn instead to alternative enrollment options, such as paper and phone applications.  But even those applications must rely on the same portal to determine eligibility, according to ABC News, which sparked an interesting exchange today between WH press secretary Jay Carney and an ABC News correspondent.

In a post entitled Obamacare Paper, Phone, Web Apps ‘Stuck in the Same Queue,’ Memos Note, ABC News reported:

A series of internal Obama administration memos obtained exclusively by ABC News reveal for the first time how dysfunction with has upended the entire Affordable Care Act enrollment process, including applications by paper and phone that officials have been pushing as more reliable alternatives.

While President Obama and other top aides have publicly reassured frustrated consumers that they can bypass the troubled website and apply by phone in as little as 25 minutes, those working most closely with the rollout acknowledged privately that even the nonelectronic avenues would be no more efficient or guaranteed, the documents show.

“The same portal is used to determine eligibility no matter how the application is submitted (paper, online),” reads a Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight memo from Oct. 11.

“The paper applications allow people to feel like they are moving forward in the process and provides another option,” it says. “At the end of the day, we are all stuck in the same queue.”

In response to the report, HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said, “We have been clear for weeks now that processing paper applications uses — but bypasses the front-end portal involving creating an account. In addition, we are checking items off our punch list every day and believe that by the end of November the system will work smoothly for the vast majority of users. We are processing paper applications every day, and consumers are receiving eligibility determinations from these applications.”

Indeed, it’s not necessarily new information, as we’ve also heard in recent post-launch testimony before Congress that this is the case. But one thing that has seemed unclear is at what point those who do use the alternate methods actually end up enrolled.

This exchange today between ABC News’ Jonathan Karl and White House press secretary Jay Carney was rather…well, interesting.

Karl starts out by asking, “Did the president know that the very same problems would be facing consumers when they called on the phone when he said that they could apply in 25 minutes?”

But through some back and forth with Carney about the claim, it becomes clear that what’s at issue here is not so much the word “apply,” but actually the word “enroll.”

After being mocked by Carney for pressing the issue – Carney calls the questioning a “soliloquy” – Karl eventually makes the point very clear.  He references an October 24th quote from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: “A person on the other end of the phone can get questions answered in up to 150 languages as well as walk somebody all the way through the process and enroll at the end of the day.”

Karl follows up with the question, “She says you can enroll at the end of the day, is that right?” [followed by cross-talk]

Carney ends with, “Jon, everybody else here understands what I’m saying, I’m sorry I can’t say the same for you.”  And he then moves on to the next question.

To be fair, I understand that Carney is explaining that by saving the consumer the trouble of having to deal with the account creation process on the front-end, it was removing an element of frustration and shifting the remaining burden to the representatives and navigators instead.

But at the end of the day, I still don’t think it’s very clear as to when a consumer is actually enrolled in a plan when they apply by phone or paper application. And when a deadline is ticking away for uninsured consumers to enroll, I think that’s important information to know.


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