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Health care site put to the test as deadline nears

December 24th, 2013 1:05 pm by CARLA K. JOHNSON, AP Medical Writer

Health care site put to the test as deadline nears

In this Nov. 26, 2013 file photo, Shirin Majid plays with her daughter, Ella Townsend, 9 months, at their home in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

CHICAGO (AP) — The government's revamped health care website was put to its biggest test yet as a record-breaking surge of Americans rushed to beat Tuesday's extended deadline for signing up for coverage.

After a disastrous, glitch-plagued rollout in October, HealthCare.gov, the website where people in 36 states can shop for insurance, received nearly 2 million visits Monday and handled the traffic well, the government said.

Monday was the sign-up deadline for people wanting coverage at the start of the new year. But the Obama administration pushed back the deadline a day to deal with expected heavy traffic from procrastinators.

The grace period was the latest in a series of delays that have marked President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

Critics of the law seized on the extension as more evidence that the program is in trouble.

"The amazing, ever-expanding deadline? It's clearly a sign of desperation by the administration to do everything they can to increase the number of people signing up," said health economist Gail Wilensky, who ran Medicare for President George H.W. Bush.

The law's supporters said the extra day means the public got the message and wants subsidized health insurance.

"A lot of people who previously found health care unaffordable are learning they can get very substantial subsidies that bring premiums within their reach," said Ron Pollack, president of Families USA, a liberal advocacy group leading efforts to get uninsured people signed up for coverage next year. "That's why we're seeing a large influx of people trying to get enrolled."

The website went through extensive hardware and software upgrades to make it more reliable and increase its capacity.

When the number of simultaneous users reached 60,000 on Monday, site operators employed a queuing system that allows people to either wait or give an email address to be invited back later, the government said. More than 60,000 users gave their email.

Many states operate their own online marketplaces for buying coverage, and some of them also extended their deadlines.

The insurance industry, too, has pushed back deadlines for payment, with most health plans allowing customers to pay by Jan. 10 and still get retroactive coverage to Jan. 1.

"With deadlines that keep changing, insurers want to alleviate confusion," said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans. "Health plans are going to do everything they can to help consumers with the enrollment process."

Obama said Friday that more than 1 million Americans had enrolled for coverage since Oct. 1. The administration's estimates call for 3.3 million to sign up by Dec. 31, and the target is 7 million by the end of March. After that, people who fail to buy coverage can face tax penalties.

In this Friday, Dec 20, 2013 photo, certified enrollment specialist Richelle Baker, right, talks to Martha Medina, left, and her daughter Martha, both from Hialeah, Fla., at a Healthcare Insurance Marketplace office in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Employers step in to prevent worker burnout 

DANICA KIRKA, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Volkswagen turns off some employees' email 30 minutes after their shifts end. Goldman Sachs is urging junior staff to take weekends off.

This surge in corporate beneficence isn't an indication that employers are becoming kinder and gentler: It's about the bottom line. After years in which the ease of instant communication via email and smartphones allowed bosses to place greater and greater demands on white-collar workers, some companies are beginning to set limits, recognizing that successful employees must be able to escape from work.

"Industry is now responding," said Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University, who says the imperative to be constantly reachable by iPhone or tablet is taking a toll on the work delivered at the office. "Employees are turning up, but they're not delivering anything."

After seeing colleagues lose their jobs during the Great Recession, workers are more inclined to come in to work, even when sick, surveys show. After hours, physical presence is replaced by the next best thing — a virtual one. Many employees fear switching off, instead deciding to work on vacation, during dinner and in bed with the help of smart phones, laptops and tablet computers.

People also have more data than ever to process — whether they ask for it or not. Information overload cost American businesses just under $1 trillion in employee time lost to needless emails and other distractions in 2010, according to Jonathan Spira, chief analyst of the New York research firm Basex.

The cost of replacing employees who leave in search of better work conditions is also a concern. A study from the Center for American Progress put the cost of turnover at just over a fifth of the employee's salary for people making up to $75,000 a year. That goes up exponentially for top managers, with turnover costs as high as 213 percent of salary for very highly paid positions.

After worrying about trimming staff numbers during the recession, employers are focusing on how to keep those who are left from burning out.

JOB SAFETY

One strategy, which Goldman Sachs has been trying, is to make people feel less at risk in their jobs. That's not easy in most companies, much less so in investment banking, infamous for its competitive environment and grueling work hours.

To keep junior analysts from burning out in the attempt to prove their worth, the bank has decided to start hiring first-year analysts as permanent employees, instead of taking them on as contract workers. It is also encouraging them to not work weekends.

"The goal is for our analysts to want to be here for a career," said David Solomon, global head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs. "This is a marathon, not a sprint."

Work conditions in banking came under scrutiny after an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London died from an epileptic seizure that may have been brought on by fatigue. The case prompted the bank to review work conditions for junior employees.

But it isn't just the junior staff. Recently, Hector Sants, a senior executive brought in to help London-based Barclays bank overcome a costly scandal, resigned after a leave of absence due to stress and exhaustion. The chief executive officer of Lloyds Bank, Antonio Horta Osorio, took time out in 2011. The CEO AkzoNobel, a Dutch paint and coatings company, did the same last year.

"The HR people now talk about regrettable turnover. We cannot afford to lose our best people because we have fewer people," said Cooper, the professor. "We will lose them to companies with better work/life balance, where they don't have to work 19-hour days."

INFORMATION OVERLOAD

Though technology has helped boost worker productivity over the past few decades, it has come with related costs, like stress.

Technology, for example, is eliminating the downtime or slack that used to be built into the day — such as the time one took going to the library to do research that can now be completed online, says Edward Tenner, author of "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences." Those minutes used to act as a buffer that prevented people from working constantly.

Though physical exhaustion in traditional enterprises was bad, conflicting mental demands can be more problematic, Tenner says, particularly in the United States, where professional workers often don't have union contracts or the same legal overtime protection as hourly workers do.

"So it's as the Red Queen said in 'Through the Looking-Glass,' it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place," Tenner said.

Companies haven't yet come to grips with how bad it is, said Spira, the analyst. Information overload has decreased people's ability to manage thoughts and ideas. Fixing it means changing company culture — such as the idea that dozens of people need to be cc-ed on a given email.

"Almost every organization is burying its head in the sand," said Spira, the author of "Overload!: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization."

It is hard for a company to control the amount of technology used in the workplace and at home since it is so integral to modern life. Volkswagen addressed the issue in a blunt, if effective, manner — by deactivating some workers' email accounts once their shifts were over.

TOUGHER MEASURES

To get everyone, from intern to CEO, to not overdo it with the work hours, some companies have resorted to bolder measures.

Quirky, a New York based start-up which shepherds inventions to the marketplace, has instituted a "blackout" week once a quarter during which no one except customer service representatives are allowed to work, lest employees be tempted to check email.

"We all dropped pencils together," said CEO Ben Kaufman, who figured he could bring the idea of re-invention to his own company. "People were getting burned out. They needed to see other things besides their desk."

And having the message come right from the top was important for Shirin Majid, the company's 39-year-old head of digital marketing, who laments not having enough time to spend with her husband and 9-month-old daughter, Ella. In 17 years of public relations work, she has yet to take a vacation devoid of that dreaded phone call from the office.

But not during a recent vacation. No one could call from the office — since no one was at the office.

"If you know that your boss is checked out, you're going to relax a bit and not worry that you're going to get an email," she said. "You can just have a nap."

All that blackout-inspired creativity is working out for them so far: General Electric just invested $30 million.



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