GAO warns delays threaten health exchange rollout

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is confident her agency will meet the Oct. 1 deadline for health insurance exchange open enrollment. But a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office Wednesday warns that much work remains to be done and untested health information technology and slow consumer outreach jeopardize a "timely and smooth" rollout.

The GAO acknowledged the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services met early schedules for the development of exchanges, but said several critical tasks are incomplete as of May, such as final testing with federal and state partners and consumer assistance and outreach activities.

For consumer assistance, CMS delayed by about two months funding awards for navigators, an essential ingredient to payers' success in exchanges. The reform law requires navigators to help consumers find the most appropriate health plan on the online marketplaces.

The GAO report listed other consumer assistance activities that remained undone as of May, including the federal call center, website, media outreach and the consumer complaint tracking system for the 34 federally facilitated exchanges.

In accordance with the GAO's findings, technology experts expect the online marketplaces to present bugs and technological challenges initially.

But more implementation efforts are kicking in: A new campaign debuted this week to promote health insurance exchanges and educate uninsured individuals across the country. Enroll America is launching its promotional effort starting with community outreach and building up toward a paid advertising campaign, FierceHealthPayer previously reported.

HHS responded to the report by highlighting its progress and maintaining that exchanges will be open and functioning in every state by Oct. 1.

Despite progress, the GAO emphasizes time is of the essence, as additional missed deadlines closer to the start of enrollment--which is less than four months away--could interfere with health exchange implementation.

 For more:
- here's the GAO summary and report (.pdf)