A man looks over the Affordable Care Act signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this photo illustration

Obamacare signup site to be shut down for 12 hours nearly every Sunday of open enrollment

The federal government plans to shut down Healthcare.gov on all but one Sunday morning during open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act, according to Department of Health and Human Services materials first reported by Kaiser Health News.

HHS made the announcement during a webinar training session with assisters who help enrollees sign up for individual plans, Kaiser Health News reporter Phil Galewitz Friday.

HHS regularly schedules maintenance outages for Healthcare.gov during open enrollment period, according to a spokesperson from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service. The spokesperson said the schedule was provided earlier this year “to accommodate requests from certified application assisters.”

“System downtime is planned for the lowest-traffic time periods on HealthCare.gov including Sunday evenings and overnight,” the spokesperson said in a written statement to the NewsHour.

The department has already planned to shorten open enrollment season by 45 days — running from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, 2017 for 2018 coverage. During the previous enrollment period, people had twice as much time to enroll for individual health insurance.

Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said this decision for reduced hours on top of that hurts people with inflexible work schedules and limited access to Internet and services.

“That’s the height of irresponsibility,” Blumberg said. “It’s just one more thing to create difficulty for people to be able to access the insurers they need through the law as it was written.”

As Congress continues to struggle to pass legislation that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Trump has suggested he would “let Obamacare fail.”

“We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it. I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it,” he said after the Senate’s last failed attempt in July.

Advocates and policy experts say the administration has since taken steps that chip away at the law. In July, the Trump administration decided to end assistance contracts with 18 cities, decreasing the amount of help available to people who may have questions while signing up for health insurance.

Neglect — through things like shedding staff for the exchanges or stop paying for marketing billboards or radio ads to remind people to sign up before the enrollment deadline — is one of the easiest ways to do that, experts said.

Reduced outreach could contribute to fewer new enrollees for health insurance exchanges but also a drop in beneficiaries for Medicaid, children’s health insurance programs and more because people often find out they’re eligible for multiple services when applying for one.

Most people window shop for their individual insurance plans and don’t purchase until the last minute, said Thomas Miller, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. But HHS should be transparent about why these website updates are a good thing, he said.

“You need to go out of your way to explain how this is actually going to be helpful rather than feed into suspicions that will just derail the process” of scaling back Obamacare, Miller said.