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Administration launches program to let users circumvent HealthCare.gov

Trouble with the HealthCare.gov site appears to be so widespread that the Obama administration has opened the door for Americans to circumvent the site altogether. 

Under a plan announced Friday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the government would allow people to deal directly with insurance companies instead of through the federally run exchange website. The move comes as the administration's self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline for fixing the site is just days away, and officials acknowledge it may not be fully operational by then. 

The pilot program announced by CMS would initially launch for residents in Ohio, Florida and Texas, and is the latest effort to give users an alternative to the troubled site. 

“This is one more way we are working to offer consumers a variety of ways to enroll in affordable coverage,” agency spokeswomen Julie Bataille said in announcing the pilot project. “By strengthening the multiple channels to enroll in quality, affordable coverage … we are ensuring that every American who wants it can gain access to these new coverage options.”

Bataille said that direct enrollment has “been there from the start.” But the option was limited by the website problems, which have been fixed to the extent that insurance companies can now send applications to the site to assess enrollees' eligibility for coverage and potential discounts on premiums, she said.

Though the option could help Americans frustrated by the HealthCare.gov’s crashes, slow response times and other problems, it is another acknowledgement that the site probably will not be working for everybody by the administration’s Nov. 30 deadline. 

Officials originally vowed to fix the site by then. As the extent of the site's problems became apparent, officials lowered the bar on that goal -- vowing instead to significantly improve the site by the end of the month. 

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that improvements to the site are on schedule, including faster response times, and that it should be able to handle 50,000 concurrent users.

"If there are more than 50,000 people trying to use the website, individuals can choose to receive an email from CMS when the traffic on the website has been reduced," he said. 

Administration officials have also been encouraging Americans to submit written applications, contact call centers or visit sign-up centers to enroll for insurance. 

They continue to say the site will be working smoothly by the end of the month for “a vast majority of Americans.” And last week, they extended the enrollment deadline from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23 to get insurance coverage starting Jan. 1.

Americans, who are required to have insurance under the president’s 2010 health care law, must enroll by the end of March or face a tax penalty. 

In another development, GoHealthInsurance.com announced Monday that it has become the first private insurer to integrate with the so-called Federal Data Service Hub --- which includes IRS, citizenship and other personal information. So Americans can now use that as well to bypass the federal site and enroll in health plans under ObamaCare that kick in next year.

The company also said the process includes the capacity to calculate the subsidies.

As for the CMS announcement, Bataille said the pilot project will help improve the overall direct enrollment option because insurers and enrollees will provide federal officials with “detailed feedback on their experience.”