The exchange is balking when more than 20,000 to 30,000 people attempt to use it at the same time -- about half its intended capacity, said the official. And the main contractor who built the site, CGI Federal, has been able to fix only about six of every 10 defects.
Government workers and technical contractors racing to repair the website have concluded, the official said, that the only way for large numbers of Americans to enroll in the health-care plans soon is by using other means so that the online system isn't overburdened.
This inside view of the halting nature of HealthCare.gov repairs is emerging as the insurance industry is working behind the scenes on contingency plans, in case the site continues to have problems. And it calls into question the repeated assurances by the White House and other top officials that the insurance exchange will work smoothly for the vast majority of Americans by Nov. 30. Speaking in Dallas a week ago, President Barack Obama said that the "website is already better than it was at the beginning of October, and by the end of this month, we anticipate that it is going to be working the way it is supposed to, all right?" The need for what the official called a "divide-and-conquer strategy" for enrollment puts more emphasis on alternate methods for buying health plans. These methods include federal call centers and insurance companies that sell policies directly to customers -- paths that are hobbled for now by some of the same technical problems affecting the federal website.
Julie Bataille, director of communications at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is part of the Health and Human Services Department, said: "We are working 24/7 to make improvements so that by the end of the month the site is working smoothly for the vast majority of users. We are making progress, including fixes to reduce error rates and get the site moving faster.
"The challenges we are addressing today," she added, "are a snapshot of November 12th, not November 30th."
Today, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is set to grill several high-ranking administration technology officials about the problems affecting the HealthCare.gov.
The volume problems mean that some people face frozen computer screens when they try to enter information -- and then get timeout errors, said the official with knowledge of the project.
Call centers have had problems, too. Within the network of 17 federally sponsored call locations staffed by more than 10,000 people, consumers are discovering that telephone representatives lack the authority to correct errors in online applications. And sometimes, consumers with more than routine questions are promised that specialists will call them back, but the calls never come.
Insurance companies, which have been pressing the White House for greater ability to sign up customers directly, are stuck at the moment, unable to complete enrollments. That is because they must connect with the federal online system to determine whether customers' incomes qualify them for tax credits to help pay for their insurance -- a part of the system that does not work.
According to the official, workers are trying to streamline the computer system so that it can handle outside queries from insurers and the call centers about whether people are eligible for subsidies. Technical workers hope to have this part of the system working within two to three weeks.
The work that remains to be done on the exchange is significant because the 2010 Affordable Care Act requires most Americans to have health insurance by Jan. 1. Under the law, the online marketplaces were supposed to be a central way for uninsured people to get coverage that is better and more affordable than their current policies.
Bataille said that the Department of Health and Human Services is emailing about 275,000 consumers who have gotten stuck while trying to shop for and buy health plans. The emails encourage them to try again.
Asked whether the website could handle all those consumers if they logged on at once, Bataille replied, "That's why we are sending this series of emails in waves."
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has said it has cut the waiting time for pages on the federal website from an average of eight seconds to one second and has reduced errors that have blocked consumers from 6 percent to 2 percent.
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