Thousands of Americans may be misinformed about whether they’re eligible for health insurance subsidies because of a little-known Obamacare website glitch.
The glitch, which reportedly shows that the website relies on poverty-level guidelines for the wrong year, went virtually undetected until it was discovered this week by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Inquirer detected the glitch while running dozens of income scenarios through the Obamacare website.
The error primarily affects households that are just barely above the poverty line in states that have not yet expanded Medicare, the Inquirer reported. It said the website has been automatically raising the cost of health insurance by thousands of dollars, nudging out consumers who simply can’t afford it.
It’s unclear precisely how many have been affected by the error (though the Inquirer suggested it could be in the "tens of thousands"). Still, the existence of the glitch raises serious questions about whether a large number of consumers have given up trying to enroll in plans because they were told incorrectly that they don’t qualify for aid.
The fact that the error was spotted just this week raises obvious questions about the stability of the website.
"It is almost impossible to work back from a decision and see what they did," Judy Solomon, vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., told the Inquirer.
She added there should be a notice for consumers that says, "We have found that your income for 2014 will be X, and based on that income your tax credit will be Y."
However, Obamacare determination letters state only the users tax credit and their resulting premium.
"I would have no idea if it's right or wrong," Solomon said.
The report noted that neither Solomon nor local health-policy analysts nor officials had noticed the giant error on the healthcare.gov website. And it appears officials with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were unaware, too.
"This tool is intended only to be used as an unofficial estimate that consumers could use before completing their application, which is where they get their official determination," a CMS spokesman said in a statement Thursday. "While there is a small difference between the poverty levels from year to year, we will change this tool for clarity. We encourage consumers to complete their marketplace application, where they will get an accurate determination of their tax credits."
Sure, many users probably use the tool before applying. However, as certain analysts outside CMS have wondered, how likely is it that consumers dig deeper for more options after receiving a “not eligible” notice from the site?
"I wonder if CMS has the capacity to recontact people," said health specialist Timothy Jost.
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