What do Obamacare and Haley Joel Osment have in common? They both see dead people.
On Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released another report into eligibility verification checks on the federally run Obamacare insurance exchange used by more than three dozen states. As with prior studies, GAO concluded that regulators still need to improve integrity efforts to ensure the federal government spends taxpayer funds wisely.
Among the report’s most noteworthy conclusions: A total of 17,000 federally subsidized insurance policies studied during the 2015 plan year—the most recent for which GAO had complete data at the time of its investigation—began or continued after the applicant’s reported date of death. In 1,000 of those cases, coverage began after the applicant’s reported date of death. In a further 2,000, the application was submitted after the applicant’s reported date of death—in most cases because the exchange automatically re-enrolled applicants without checking to determine that they remained alive.
GAO previously recommended that the federal exchange verify eligibility periodically, checking changes in circumstances that would affect the status of federal subsidies, such as death. However, to the best of auditors’ knowledge, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has not implemented this recommendation, one of 18 relating to exchange integrity that remain open (i.e., not completed) from two prior GAO reports.
In part, the lack of strong program integrity provisions represents a continued legacy of the healthcare.gov “debacle” in 2013. While CMS managed to get the public segments of the website up and running by December of that year, just prior to Obamacare’s January 2014 launch, the “back-end” portions of the tech infrastructure remained a work in progress for far longer.
For instance, this week’s GAO report notes that only in March 2017 did CMS finally upgrade the system such that the exchange could modify or change Social Security numbers (SSNs)—whether due to a name change, or a typo when filling out the initial application for coverage. Before then, exchange officials “did not actively take steps to resolve SSN inconsistencies in plan year 2015 primarily because [they] could not update SSNs in the data system at the time.” Because the poorly designed system could not distinguish between actual fraud and changed circumstances, CMS didn’t investigate either one.
The GAO report claims that the approximately 1 percent of applicants with potential inconsistencies related to citizenship, Social Security numbers or identity, or death represent a small portion of 8 million subsidized applicants overall. However, the study likely understates the incidence of potentially improper applicants, as it omits other potential sources of fraud relating to Obamacare subsidies: understating income, discrepancies in residency, or incarceration status (incarcerated individuals do not qualify for subsidies).
Moreover, given the amount of spending on health insurance subsidies, even the “small” sums at issue matter. For instance, GAO identified a total of $23 million in premium subsidies associated with the 17,000 applicants covered after their reported date of death. GAO could not determine whether or to what extent federal authorities recovered those subsidies during the reconciliation process (which occurs on an individual’s tax return the following year).
However, if even a fraction of that $23 million remained in insurers’ hands—insurers receive direct subsidies on behalf of beneficiaries in most cases—it represents a waste to taxpayers. Particularly given that the $23 million figure only reflects subsidy spending in 2015—not 2014, or the three years since 2015—it seems an incredible waste to put tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of taxpayer dollars at risk, for want of a technological infrastructure likely costing far less.
In other words, while former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius has long since left government, the Obamacare exchange “debacle” lives on—as do, it would appear, federal insurance subsidies provided to long-since-deceased individuals.
Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm. He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.