US HHS: Many people will shop for insurance outside HealthCare.gov

Many insurance shoppers will choose to buy coverage over the phone or in person, officials say

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expects a significant percentage of U.S. residents looking to buy health insurance under a new government program to avoid the troubled HealthCare.gov, but many of those people will do so for reasons unrelated to the website's problems, officials said.

HHS officials declined to comment on the specific number of people they expect to buy health insurance plans over the phone or in person after the Washington Post reported Sunday that the agency expects as many as 20 percent of people buying new health insurance plans to use methods other than HealthCare.gov.

But officials have been saying, during press briefings in recent days, that they expect many insurance shoppers to choose other methods. In some cases, shoppers who experienced problems with the website may opt for other methods, but so will those who have complex questions and those who are more comfortable shopping over the phone or in person, said Julie Bataille, communications director for the HHS Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"We know that there are individuals ... who will simply choose not to enroll online, or who would not be served best by doing so," Bataille said Monday. "There are those who have complex family and personal situations who may be in a universe of people who would be better served in person or going to a call center."

CMS has trained more than 10,000 call-center workers to help people shop for insurance, another spokeswoman said. In addition, CMS has also trained more than 75,000 people to help insurance shoppers through the process at centers across the country, she said.

The agency is also working to set up direct enrollment through insurance companies, she added.

The insurance plans are available for millions of U.S. residents who don't have insurance coverage as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. A key piece of the law is HealthCare.gov, an insurance comparison and shopping website that has experienced slow page load times, crashes and other malfunctions since CMS launched the site Oct. 1.

CMS is on track, Bataille said, to have the site working smoothly for a majority of users by the end of the month, the deadline set by officials in President Barack Obama's administration. The tech team working on the site made several software improvements to the site over the weekend, she said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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