Judgment day for HealthCare.gov repairs

With mere hours to go until a self-imposed deadline to make Obamacare website HealthCare.gov functional for the “vast majority of users” by the end of November, the White House is projecting confidence that the problem-plagued website will be up to snuff on time, as predicted.

In a conference call this week, the point man for the overhaul of HealthCare.gov, Jeffrey Zients, briefed reporters on the work being done by programmers and technicians fixing the website and offered an optimistic big-picture assessment of what all their work will amount to.

 “If you bring this all together -- private sector speed and execution; the command center…with real-time monitoring; troubleshooting when things go wrong, and overall coordination and direction; a hardware-upgrade team, and then a software-fix team -- what's happened is the site has gotten better and better each week, as we've talked about,” Zients said. “And we are confident that we're on track to achieve our goal to make HealthCare.gov operate smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of the month.”

Zients and several other administration officials detailed specific areas that have seen significant improvement, as well as a few lingering issues, offering a laundry list of repairs already completed and a road map for those still to come.

On reducing response time and troubleshooting bugs, Zients said, the team has made significant progress. The site can also handle significantly more capacity, he indicated, though he added, “There will be moments, and they’re most likely in the middle of the day, where…demand will be greater than that capacity.”

“As more and more users come to the site, the site is more stretched at current capacity -- which is a good sign, meaning users are coming and users are going all the way through the process, all the way through enrollment,” he explained. “So we need to increase the capacity to handle the additional users.”

By the end of November, the website should be able to handle as many as 50,000 users at a time, and more than 800,000 visits a day, administration officials said Monday. Visitors in excess of 50,000 will be queued up as they await access.

Much of the work yet to be done, according to the team spearheading the repairs, is focused not on the front-end consumer experience, which includes browsing plans and submitting applications, but on the back end of the website, which is responsible for coordinating payments and applicant information with insurance companies, among other responsibilities.

“That work is actively happening now, and I would describe it as backend functionality, meaning it’s not consumer-facing, but it is things that we need to have in place in order to help process some of the issuer payments,” explained Julie Bataille, the director of communications at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “And we are on track to have that work done.” The administration has predicted that the website’s back end will be functional by mid-January 2014.

Despite the happy talk from Zients and his lieutenants, the rollout of the health care law continues to be marred by delays and problems. On Wednesday, for example, the administration delayed by one year the enrollment period for small businesses looking to sign up for health insurance through the law’s insurance exchanges – the latest in a series of postponements and adjustments made to ease the law’s implementation.

And on top of the problems with the small business marketplace, it’s still not entirely clear just how functional the individual market’s website will be come December 1. Officials have said that, by the end of November, 80 percent of users should be able to complete their application, browse insurance options, and enroll in a plan. On Tuesday, Zients echoed that assessment, but he admitted that a number of users may still encounter difficulties or prefer to sign up via offline methods.

“There will be complicated cases that the system was not intended to handle that need assistance from call centers or from personal navigators,” he said. And due to the “importance” of deciding which health insurance plan to purchase, he added, some consumers “will use the web, but they’ll also use call centers, or they’ll also sit down with people to help them with the decision making.”

But when he was asked whether the administration will provide metrics on Saturday that verify the 80 percent target, or whether people should just take the administration’s word for it, Zients would only say, “We will continue to update you on metrics and user experience and our success rates as we go forward.”

Much of the reluctance to spell out a firm deadline with hard-and-fast metrics can be seen as a preemptive safeguard against the political firestorm that would erupt if the website continues to perform poorly despite the administration’s predictions of marked improvement. And the administration has emphasized that, despite the end-of-November goal for website repairs, the open enrollment period will stretch through March of 2014, providing consumers plenty of time to sign up even if website problems persist.

By mid-December, the website will be given a tangible progress report when the administration releases the enrollment figures for the second month of Obamacare’s online insurance exchanges.  The first month saw a paltry 106,185 people sign up for health insurance plans, far fewer than the 500,000 expected in the first month – a shortfall blamed on the faulty website by administration officials. If the second month’s figures are similarly sparse, it could spell big problems for the administration, which has insisted that Obamacare is experience growing pains – not death throes.

  • Jake Miller

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