Obamacare Rollout Facing Tech Troubles

The online exchanges that will let the uninsured buy health coverage aren't yet fully functional

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The rollout of the Affordable Care Act has seen its share of logistical issues, from delaying the mandate that large businesses offer insurance to employees to postponing limits on individuals’ out-of-pocket costs. Now, there’s a new and more urgent setback: the software that’s supposed to let people buy federally subsidized health insurance starting in October doesn’t work all the time.

A report in the Wall Street Journal explains that the software that will allow uninsured Americans to purchase a health care plan through federally managed health care exchanges is at times miscalculating the prices individuals will have to pay for subsidized coverage. Insurers worry that early glitches in the program might sour people on the idea of picking up health coverage. That would be a setback for Obamacare, which needs a critical mass of younger, generally healthy Americans to keep prices affordable.

The software company helping to revolutionize the American health care system is, in fact, Canadian. CGI Group, an information technology firm that scored an estimated $93 million contract in 2011 to build Obamacare’s federally funded health care exchanges, is based in Montreal, Quebec. The exchanges are being built up by CGI Federal, a U.S.-based subsidiary of CGI Group, whose contract runs until the spring of 2014. Their software will be used not only to allow uninsured Americans to select health care plans but also to let insurers certify their plans with the federal government. A CGI spokesman declined to clarify the nature of the glitches.

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The problems with the insurance exchange software would affect a large number of states. The federal government is at least partially running the exchanges in 36 states where state governments did not fully set up independent exchanges, according to the Journal.

Despite online problems, Americans may still be able to buy plans via phone or from insurers directly. A CGI spokesman confirmed that the kinks won’t affect the planned Oct. 1 launch of the exchanges. For the company and the government, the true deadline for a fully functional health care exchange system is January 1, 2014, when policies purchased through the new exchanges will begin to take effect.