October 01, 2013
2 min read

HHS scrambles to launch exchanges despite shutdown-related staff cuts

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The Department of Health and Human Services launched new health insurance exchanges today despite a government shutdown that furloughed more than half of its employees.

“Today marks the start of an intense 6-month long open enrollment and public education campaign for the Marketplace,” Marilyn Tavenner, CMS administrator, said. “We want consumers to know that they can find and compare options, check if they qualify for lower costs, and get covered.”

But anyone looking for help with new online exchanges today also received a political reality check. The HHS home page warned: “Due to the lapse in government funding, only web sites supporting excepted functions will be updated unless otherwise funded. As a result, the information on this website may not be up to date, the transactions submitted via the website may not be processed, and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.”

The HHS contingency plan for the shutdown included the furlough of 40,512 employees or about 52% of its workforce. Other cutbacks affected the National Institutes of Health, which stopped admitting new patients without special permission, initiating new protocols or taking any action on grant applications or awards.

Marilyn Tavenner MUG 

Marilyn Tavenner

Other agencies affected, according to the contingency plan, included the CDC, which could not “support the annual seasonal influenza program, outbreak detection and linking across state boundaries using genetic and molecular analysis, continuous updating of disease treatment and prevention recommendations.”

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality halted funding for new grants and contracts, the CMS stopped discretionary funding for health care fraud and abuse strike force teams and the FDA discontinued the majority of its food safety, nutrition and cosmetics activities.

Consumers also appeared to be frustrated with functionality problems at the main health insurance exchange portal, HealthCare.gov, judging by these posts on the exchange’s Facebook page.

  • “Can’t create an account because the Security Questions fields are not populated. Let me know when your site is ACTUALLY ready.”
  • “I get through the whole thing then it messes up with [sic] I am ready to submit.”
  • “No Live Chat. Can’t get past Q&A screen. System not working.”
  • “Have been trying to create an account since 3 AM. No Luck!”

But a few posts were congratulatory, despite the delays:

  • “It’s about time. I’m happy I have more of a peace of mind.”
  • “Props to you guys! I looked through your website and it was super-informative ... AND y’all are covering social media too?!? I’m impressed.”

Even the HHS Twitter feed was temporarily put out of action by the shutdown, as officials tweeted: “We’re sorry, but we will not be tweeting or responding to replies during the government shutdown. We’ll be back as soon as possible!”