To offset the risk of widespread premium hikes, the administration will encourage existing customers to go back through the system, update their personal information, and shop for a better deal. People who are willing to change plans can insulate themselves from most premium hikes—but that's where the technology starts to get tricky.
For starters, returning customers will have to use the old, 78-screen application. New customers can use a simpler, faster, and more streamlined 16-screen version.
Health and Human Services officials said the site will automatically fill in existing consumers' information, such as their address and income, to help speed them through the process even though they have to use a more cumbersome application. That makes sense, as long as consumers take the time to change pre-populated information that has become outdated.
"We don't have great concern that people will be confused by the technology," said Andy Slavitt, the principal deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, at a recent briefing with reporters.
The site won't fill in a 14-digit code that identifies their existing policy; consumers will have to go find that code on a letter from their insurance company and enter it themselves. Adding that step might help prod consumers into shopping around, but the industry official said there's concern that it will simply confuse customers.
And while major improvements have been made to HealthCare.gov's user experience, some parts of the system's "back end" are still under construction—including the mechanism that reconciles insurers' information with the federal government's—to make sure both systems acknowledge they've enrolled the same people.
As part of the reconciliation process, insurers will get a list of everyone the government has logged as re-enrolling in their plans. But they won't get a list of people who have decided to drop their plans, the industry official said.
This same information was often missing, incomplete, or wrong during the first open-enrollment period—that was the fuss over "834" transmissions—and, partly because of that experience, insurers are afraid some people will fall through the cracks.
Without a list of terminated policies, the insurance official said, insurers don't know whose coverage they should cut off and who was simply lost in the shuffle but intended to stay enrolled.
Again, none of these are fatal problems. Insurers managed to sign up nearly 8 million people largely by hand during the first open-enrollment period, and these technical challenges pale in comparison to last year's.
But to whatever extent these issues do trip up consumers, the shorter enrollment window might make the confusion harder to resolve, at least quickly.
The second sign-up period ends in February, soon after Obamacare enrollees are scheduled to receive a notice outlining the tax credits they received to help pay for their coverage. If their subsidies were too big and they owe the IRS money, that doesn't leave much time to go back and update their financial information for the next year, the industry official warned.