Obamacare Deadline Looms: Will Federal Websites Be Ready?


As the end of November approaches, the Obama administration’s self-imposed deadline draws nearer. In late October — after the Department of Health and Human Services scrambled for weeks to find a fix for the error-riddled, federally created health care websites — the White House promised Healthcare.gov, the portal that links all 36 federal online insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act, would be running smoothly by the end of this month. In a statement made October 25, Jeff Zients, the health care entrepreneur slated to replace Gene Sperling as director the National Economic Council, argued that Healthcare.gov was “fixable.”

Those online marketplaces launched on October 1 to numerous software errors and design flaws that caused hours-long wait times, prevented potential customers from creating accounts and completing the 30-step enrollment process, sent insurers the wrong information, and made it difficult for customers to receive an accurate cost estimate.

As of Monday, workers helping enrollees sign up had noticed that the federal website was running more smoothly, meaning insurance customers were experience shorter wait times and fewer crashes. Still, as the Washington Post reported, the online computer system, which gives marketplaces the means to see which applicants qualify for what programs, has defects, and those defects will be a problem when a larger volume of applicants begin to enroll in coming weeks, as expected.

For the overall success of the reform, one of the most concerning glitches is the one that gives insurers erroneous reports about who has enrolled. Problems linger despite the fact that additional IT staffers have been brought on. The site has been updated several times with new code that includes “bug fixes,” and additional capacity has been added so that the virtual “waiting room,” which has caused so many problems, could be removed.

To cope with the traffic surge that health officials expect the websites to experience this upcoming weekend, after the deadline passes and the federally facilitated exchanges are theoretically running smoothly, the Obama administration has devised a plan. During a press briefing on Monday aboard the Air Force One, Josh Earnest, the deputy press secretary and chief of staff in the White House Office of Communications, explained to reporters the “queuing system,” a feature meant to prevent potential enrollees from becoming discouraged.

His comments were prompted by a reporter who pushed Earnest to address how smoothly the health care website was functioning: “You guys are now six days from the new November 30th deadline, which you all have said, at that point, you hope that the vast majority of people will still have access to enroll in Healthcare.gov. You say that 50,000 — the website will be able to accommodate up to 50,000 users, which is obviously a huge change. Six days away, are you still confident in that? And do you have a contingency plan if, once again, this is not the case?”

In response, Earnest said the administration was on track to “meeting the goals that we established for ourselves and established for the website on November 30th,” according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. He explained that CMS had been citing metrics to log that process, and its data have shown that there has been steady improvement in the speed of the website, particularly the rate at which individual pages on the site load.

Now, pages reportedly load in less than one second, which compares to a speed of between six and eight seconds when the website was first rolled out. Even more encouraging, the deputy press secretary said the error rate has decreased significantly: It now falls below 1 percent, a significant improvement from the 6 percent error rate at the time of the website’s launch. That level was “entirely unacceptable,” he said.

Another improvement Earnest described was the addition of extra capacity. By the end of November, Healthcare.gov should be able to handle 50,000 concurrent users. In the event that there are more than 50,000 users attempting to enroll or create accounts, insurance customers can choose to receive an email from CMS when the traffic on the website has decreased.

“That email will basically give them a link, and if you click on the link you can jump to the front of the line to access the website,” explained Earnest, noting that the fix will both allow health officials to better manage traffic flow and enhance consumer experience. “It had to be very frustrating for people who would go, repeatedly go to the website and find that they couldn’t log on because the website was busy,” he said. But now, potential enrollees can have confidence the website will actually work, the press secretary added.

“So there have been a lot of improvements that they have made. But I think the CMS — the folks at CMS will be the first ones to tell you that this continues to be a work in progress, that there are additional improvements to the website that need to be made. They continue to work through a punch list,” Earnest concluded. “I know that there are several dozen items that they identified at the end of last week that they hope to try to address over the course of this week. I haven’t gotten an update about where they stand on that punch list, but suffice it to say there is no shortage of areas that need the attention of developers and other technology experts as they try to confront some of the challenges with the website.”

He then reiterated that the administration is pleased with the progress CMS has made and that it expects the website to be running smoothly by the November 30 deadline.

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