WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Monday expressed guarded confidence that it’s on track to get the troubled Healthcare.gov website running properly by Nov. 30, its self-imposed deadline.
“The system will not work perfectly on Dec. 1, but it will operate much better than it did in October,” Julie Bataille, communications director at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said during a telephone briefing.
Administration officials say they want four out of five site users to be able to compare, apply and enroll into new health coverage in December. A surge in signups is expected by Dec. 23 – the last day to enroll in health coverage that starts on Jan. 1, 2014.
To handle the increased volume, the site will double its current capacity by Nov. 30 to handle 50,000 simultaneous users and 800,000 daily visitors.
If user volume spikes too high and becomes unwieldy, a new “queuing” feature will message users to leave the site and return when volume has decreased.
“Those are the kinds of things that we are actively going to have in place early next week to manage demand,” Bataille said.
Last week, Jeffrey Zientz, the White House-appointed consultant who is overseeing the site repair efforts, said more than 300 software improvements, a host of new hardware upgrades, along with code rewrites and capacity increases, have made noticeable improvements to the site. The repair team will work through the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to make some 50 more fixes this week.
After a disastrous open enrollment debut on Oct. 1, the website that serves as an entry portal for the federal insurance marketplace has been on its sickbed for most of October and November.
It was expected to log 500,000 new health plan enrollees in October. But just over 26,000 people managed to enroll because of problems setting up individual accounts, browsing the various coverage options and numerous other site malfunctions.
Now after repairs by private and governmental information technology experts, pages load in under a second, down from 8 seconds in October. And the per-page frequency of system timeouts and failures known as the “page error rate” had shrunk to 0.75 percent last week, down from 6 percent several weeks ago, Zientz said.
But additional problems persist.
It remains unclear when the Spanish-language website and the online small business marketplace known as “SHOP” will be up and running.
And errors continue to show up in information sent to insurers about applicants.
On Monday, the site was down for about an hour because of what Bataille called “parts of the system not communicating properly on the back end.” Technicians repaired the site quickly, and the problems did not affect operation of the federal website’s data hub, which verifies applicant information for marketplaces in all 50 states.
“We have work to do to further improve the system and user experience, and it’s likely that as we move forward, we’ll find additional glitches and experience intermittent periods of suboptimal performance,” Zientz said last week. “Our bottom line is that we’ve made measurable progress in getting the site working smoothly for the vast majority of users.”
The problems have taken a toll.
President Barack Obama was forced to ask states to allow people to renew or extend their canceled individual and small group health plans because of the site’s problems and his own false promise that people would be able to keep their health plans.
Officials for the some of the 14 state-run marketplaces said in a recent telephone briefing that fallout from the federal website’s problems have hurt their own enrollment efforts.
“I’m quite clear that we’ve had enrollment reduced because of the sort of drumbeat of information that websites don’t work,” said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange. “Many don’t understand that there are separate websites for the (14) states that have state-based exchanges.”
Kevin Counihan, CEO of Connecticut’s state marketplace, Access Health CT, agreed.
“It has impacted enrollment. There’s clearly confusion in Connecticut,” Counihan said. “Sometimes we get those phone calls, ‘Gee, we hear the website’s down,’ or ‘We hear that you’re not going to be up (and) functional until the end of November.’ So is it dramatic? Hard to say. Has it impacted (enrollment)? I would say yes.”