Sign-up surge may cause issues in final days of open enrollment

As the Affordable Care Act enrollment season enters the home stretch, some worry that a surge of sign-ups will slow down the federal exchange and clog call centers.

Unlike in past years, when consumers had from Nov. 1 to Jan. 31 to enroll in individual marketplace plans, the enrollment period for 2018 ends this Friday. Perhaps because of that shortened window to sign up, the pace of plan selections on has been brisk since open enrollment began.

And that demand will almost certainly increase in the final days, according to Washington and Lee University professor and ACA expert Tim Jost. “It’s more likely than ever that they’re going to run into real volume problems in the last week because that’s when everybody is going to show up,” he told the Associated Press.

In a departure from the Obama administration, the Department of Health and Human Services hasn’t indicated its contingency plans for the final week of open enrollment if high volume causes problems. Officials also didn’t say whether they will continue the practice of offering a grace period for consumers who started an application before the deadline but couldn’t finish it, the article noted.

One existing tactic that employs when facing high customer volume is online “waiting rooms,” which control the number and type of transactions during peak periods in order to avoid a system crash. Though they’re typically used during surges at open enrollment deadlines, last year the federal exchange had to rely on them as early as November.

Even with the brisk pace of sign-ups on this year, it’s likely that the final enrollment total will fall short of the previous year’s tally. There were 3.6 million plan selections from Nov. 1 to Dec. 2, meaning there would have to be 5.6 million sign-ups in the final two weeks of open enrollment to reach the 2017 total of 9.2 million.

Enrollment data isn’t yet available from the states that use their own exchanges, though, and big numbers from those states could help boost the overall sign-up total. The overall enrollment number to beat from last year is 12.2 million. A previous report from ratings agency Standard & Poor’s estimated the final tally for 2018 will be 10.6 million to 11.4 million plan selections.