Verification woes on California's health exchange site (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 02 Dec 2013

Verification woes on California's health exchange site

I wrote a few weeks ago about my difficulties in signing up for a California health exchange (CoveredCA) plan. At the time, they said I should be hearing from the insurance company by the following day. I didn't believe that, of course, and indeed, it was a little over two weeks before I finally got something in the mail.

What I got in the mail was a letter from CoveredCA saying that we qualify for coverage for 90 days, but that they want to verify some things.

First, they need to verify citizenship. Fair enough. They want a birth certificate, passport, or INS form. No problem.

They they say "We are unable to match the Social Security number you gave us to our records. Please send us a copy of your Social Security card."

That's a snag. I had a social security card once ... maybe 25 years ago? but I've long since lost it and haven't had any need to go stand in line to get another one. Do I need to do that now? During the holiday season along with the thousands of other people in the same boat?

But the next part is the real kicker:

We are unable to verify that you do not have health insurance through your job or a government program.
  • If you have insurance, we need a letter from your job or the deferal/state program. The letter should be on official company or program letterhead. The letter must state the names of the persons who qualify for now, the type of coverage that ended, and the date it ended.

If you do not have insurance, please call the Service Center for assistance.

Neither of us is currently working at a regular W-2 job, let alone one that provides health insurance. So, let me get this straight: it looks like what CoveredCA is telling us is that we can't get ACA coverage unless we can prove that we don't currently have employer coverage. How the heck do you prove that?

Looking at the list of documentation they'll accept, a letter from each of our nonexistent employers, on nonexistent company letterhead, would work nicely.


Uploading documents (forget using Firefox)

I went to the website, logged in and clicked on the verification link at the lower right. (It's a little hard to find given that there's a bunch of other text on top of the link. Nobody seems to be checking the website layout.)

After clicking through a few more screens, I ended up at a page where it listed two items for each of us: Proof of Citizenship, and Proof of Minimum Essential Coverage.

The citizenship part had a long list of acceptable documents -- much longer than the list in the letter they had sent me (though nothing about social security cards, so I'm not clear where that part comes in). But a passport seemed the easiest thing. So I scanned the photo page from each of our passports, clicked on the link for proof of citizenship, clicked Upload, clicked Browse, found the link to the JPG I'd made of my passport, and clicked Upload.

And I got:

The connection to the server was reset while the page was loading.
I tried again, several more times. I tried making the file smaller (640x449, 128k), using tif and pdf instead of jpg (following suggestions I found on the web -- lots of other people are also having this problem). But it was no use -- I still got the same message every time.

Finally I found a thread where someone had discovered that it didn't work with Firefox, only with IE and Chrome. So I tried logging in with Chromium, and sure enough -- the upload worked.

It's sad to see how marginalized Firefox has become, when major sites like this don't support it.

Minor aside: there's no way to remove an upload once you've made it. I uploaded both our passports in the space for my documents, before realizing there was a separate link for his documents. I hope that doesn't get my application thrown out.

Okay, on to the next part.

Proof of Minimum Essential Coverage

Under the "Proof of Minimum Essential Coverage" category was this list of documents:

None of them seem at all relevant to someone who isn't an employee and therefore isn't covered by insurance.

Well, the letter did say "If you do not have insurance, please call the Service Center for assistance." So let's try that.

Online chat

I have trouble finding time when I can stay on the phone for the 30-45 minutes it apparently takes to get through the queue to a live operator at CoveredCA: I've tried several times, but always got called away to deal with real-world issues before I got to the head of the queue. The live chat link didn't do anything for me a few weeks ago, but this time I got a notice from the pop-up blocker and was able to get the window to pop up.

The chat window tells you where you are in the queue (I started at #47) and counts down, along with wildly varying time estimates of how long I had left to wait. After just over half an hour, I'd finally made it to position #1, and the page changed to say:

Status: Canceled

There are no agents available to chat with you right now. Please try again later.

The only option was a button labeled Request email response. So I clicked it. It took me to this page:

Permission Denied

You do not have permission to access this document.

Honestly -- does anybody bother to test any part of this website? It's been live for two months now, and so much basic functionality doesn't work at all.

I tried it several more times (the nice thing about chat, as opposed to phone, is that you can go off and do other things while you're waiting in the queue), in both Firefox and Chromium, but got exactly the same results every time. Googling suggests that lots of other people are seeing the same thing.

Makes me wonder if anyone is getting through ... or are there just a bunch of employees sitting there at their keyboards at CoveredCA headquarters, wondering why no one is asking for help via chat.

I really wish they'd offer email assistance. That seems like it should be a no-brainer, given the long wait times for interactive help either by phone or (ha!) by the nonexistent chat. But there's no such link on the website.

Well, there is a space for comments in the Verification Request screen. So I typed in a question about how they want us to prove we're not employed. At the bottom of the verification page, the button options are "Close", "Save and Exit", "Withdraw" (greyed out), and "Submit". I wonder what the difference is between "Save and Exit" and "Submit"? I crossed my fingers and went for "Submit", and now my verification status is "Submitted". I guess that's good.

Check your messages

Another thing I learned along the way was that there was another copy of the letter in my "Secure Mailbox" in the links at the top of the page after logging in. They apparently don't send any notifications that you have messages -- I wonder why they bother asking for email address, if they're not going to use it for anything -- so if you're waiting for any step of the process, be sure to log in periodically and look for that "Secure Mailbox" link.

When you do check your messages, they're in PDF! Not only that, but there's apparently something odd about their MIME type, because Firefox doesn't display them inline like other PDFs. They display okay in an external viewer, though.

So I'll be checking messages to find out what happens with the verification process, wondering whether it will all be finished by December 15, which is apparently the (unpublished) deadline for enrolling in a plan if you want it to be active by January 1.

Meanwhile, I'm trying not to think about the ominous coda in the letter they sent:

It's time to choose a plan. Your coverage starts after you choose a plan and pay your first premium (monthly cost).

Would that be in addition to the plan I supposedly already chose two weeks go? Or did they throw all that away, and I need to go through that step again when and if they decide my verification is complete? I wonder how I would know?

Phone to Blue Shield

A friend who's been having similar problems signing up for a plan suggested I call Blue Shield to see if they'd gotten any signup info for me. Unfortunately, I got the letter during the Thanksgiving holiday, so I had to wait until Monday to call Blue Shield, and just called them today.

I got through after a 15 minute phone wait, and got a very helpful person who, unfortunately, informed me that they haven't gotten anything from CoveredCA about my coverage.

After establishing that, yes, CoveredCA still has their usual 30-plus-minute phone wait, he suggested that I put in a request on the CoveredCA website for them to contact me. I said, What? I'd love that, but I haven't been able to find any way to get feedback except the phone number and the non-working live chat link. He said he'd walk me through it.

We both logged in at the same time. He said, "See the tab in the row across the top that says Resources?" Me: "No, there's no Resources link. The four tabs at the top say Learn, Preview Plans, Apply, and Maintain." He continued to insist that I should click on Resources. I did a Find in Page -- the word Resources only appears once in the page, as a header down near the bottom right, and under it are a couple of things like links for where to download a PDF viewer. Clearly not what he was talking about.

I'm guessing he was logged in as an agent/provider, not as an individual customer like I was. Anyway, he used the page they offer to agents to put in my info and a contact request. I'm not holding my breath.

But just now, after CoveredCA timed out my log-in session and put me back at the home page (what's the point of the home page, anyway? You can't even log in -- you have to click on Start here before they'll give you a Log in link) I tried clicking on the Contact us link at the bottom ... and on the page that took me to, there's a Click here to request information or provide comments link that I suspect is the same form he filled out for me. Why they offer the non-working Live Chat link on every page, but not the Request information link, is another mystery.

(Oh, I think I've figured it out now. The start page is there because the real site is at, not, and their website designers don't know how to make a website redirect automatically, so they make everybody click through an extra button to go to the real site.)

Meanwhile, time is ticking away. Nobody seems to know whether the deadline to sign up for Jan 1 is actually December 15 or December 23 (the Blue Shield rep wasn't sure either), but either way, if it takes more than two weeks for CoveredCA to submit any information to the insurer, it's hard to see how it will be possible to get signed up by the deadline if anything goes wrong and needs to be resubmitted.

Fortunately my existing health plan is still active (never mind that it costs $1000/month more than a subsidized plan). So I'm luckier than many. My friends whose existing plans have been canceled may end up with no coverage at all come Jan 1.

Update: success! At least, I think so. On Dec 12, I got an automated call from Blue Shield saying they'd gotten enrollment info, and giving me a number to call to make a payment. I paid and got a confirmation number, and they said I should expect an information packet in the mail in 5-7 working days. A friend who's been trying to sign up since Oct 1 when CoveredCA opened got the same Blue Shield call a couple of days earlier. Then we both got the same automated call a few days later; we both checked and BS has a record of both our payments, so the repeated calls are apparently just a glitch.

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