U.S. officials hope new HealthCare.gov avoids last year's problems

A woman fills out her thoughts on the Affordable Care Act at the White House Youth Summit on the Affordable Care Act in Washington December 4, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Howard Schneider WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials planned to unveil an improved healthcare insurance website on Sunday they hope will allow the second enrollment period under President Barack Obama's health reform plan to avoid the technical meltdown that plagued its launch last year. The reconfigured HealthCare.gov insurance marketplace will go live Sunday night before a three-month open enrollment period that begins Nov. 15, during which existing policyholders can change their coverage. Administration officials said on Sunday they will get it right this time, with a website that will make it easier to shop for coverage, and enough computing capacity, call-center help and other resources to handle re-enrollment of all current policyholders. "We are strongly encouraging our customers to return to HealthCare.gov ... Shop and compare. The majority will be able to save money," particularly those who may have overlooked available federal tax credits last year, said Kevin Counihan, chief executive officer of the federal health insurance marketplace. New features were added to the website last month, and more will be available by Monday for people to begin shopping for coverage. The actual enrollment period begins Saturday and lasts until February 15. The president's signature health reform law, formally known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act but better known as Obamacare, got off to a rocky start last fall because of technical problems with a Web-based marketplace where people could shop for private policies. Those glitches were smoothed out over time, and as of mid-August 7.3 million people had purchased insurance through the federal insurance marketplace or state-based systems. But the troubles with the federal marketplace and some of the state-based systems handed Republican opponents of Obamacare a potent weapon to criticize the roll-out of a program they continue to challenge. To head off a repeat, Counihan and other Department of Health and Human Services officials said in a phone call with journalists they were adding a thousand additional call center workers for the open enrollment period, bringing the total to 14,000. In addition, the website has been revised to include features that users have demanded. Chief among them is the ability for a potential customer to "window shop" and compare policies after entering only a limited amount of information -- rather completing an extensive questionnaire. "We believe this will be the most popular place on the site," and perhaps even lighten the computing load by allowing consumers to make up their mind before moving to the more data-intensive process of actually signing up, said Andy Slavitt, a deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services. Policyholders will be automatically re-enrolled in existing policies if they don't make changes. But analysis over the past year indicated that many enrollees overlooked potential benefits while others purchased policies that were more expensive than they needed. "Our goal is for people to come back and update their information and be sure they are getting the best deal possible," Slavitt said. (Editing by Eric Walsh)