Health website should be fixed in November

WASHINGTON — It should be working well by the end of November. That’s the Obama administration’s rough timetable for completing a long list of fixes to HealthCare.gov, the new, trouble-plagued website for uninsured Americans to get coverage.

Summarizing a week’s worth of intensive diagnostics, the administration acknowledged Friday the site has dozens of complex problems and tapped a private company to oversee fixes.

Jeffrey Zients, a management consultant brought in by the White House to assess the extent of problems, said his review found dozens of issues across the entire system. The site is made up of layers of components that are meant to interact in real time with consumers, government agencies and insurance company computers.

It will take a lot of work, but “HealthCare.gov is fixable,” Zients declared.

The vast majority of the issues will be resolved by the end of November, he asserted, and there will be many fewer screen freezes. He stopped short of saying problems will completely vanish.

The troubles have been nightmarish for the White House, which had promoted enrollment to be as simple as making a purchase on Amazon.com. This week, President Barack Obama declared himself frustrated by the setbacks while still trumpeting the benefits of the health care law and encouraging consumers to apply by phone if the website proved a hindrance.

In his weekly radio and internet address Saturday, Obama vowed that “in the coming weeks, we are going to get it working as smoothly as it’s supposed to.” In the meantime, he encouraged the public to call 1-800-318-2596 or visit LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov.

“We’re only a few weeks into a six-month open enrollment period, and everyone who wants insurance through the marketplace will get it,” he said.

As part of its effort to repair the system, the administration said it is promoting one of the website contractors, a subsidiary of the nation’s largest health insurance company, to take on the role of “general contractor” shepherding the fixes.

Quality Software Services Inc. — owned by a unit of UnitedHealth Group — was responsible for two components of the government’s online insurance system. One is the data hub, a linchpin that works relatively well, and the other is an accounts registration feature that initially froze and caused many problems.

HealthCare.gov was supposed to be the online portal for uninsured Americans to get coverage under Obama’s health care law. But it became a huge bottleneck immediately upon launch Oct. 1. The flop turned into an embarrassment for Obama and will likely end up as a case study of how government technology programs can go awry.

The briefing from Zients came a day after executives of QSSI and the other major contractor, CGI Federal, told Congress that the government didn’t fully test the system and ordered up last-minute changes that contributed to logjams. Next week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to testify.

Visiting a community health center Friday in Austin, Texas, Sebelius said that “in an ideal world there would have been a lot more testing” but added that her department had little flexibility to postpone the launch against the backdrop of Washington’s unforgiving politics. House Republicans trying to defund the nation’s health insurance program precipitated a government shutdown.

In the Republican address, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked whether the problems evident now foreshadowed future troubles with the health care law.

“In a few short months, families across the country will be subject to penalties under the law’s individual mandate,” he said. “How can the administration punish innocent Americans by forcing them to buy a product many cannot afford, from a system that does not work?

Zients gave some new details about the extent of the problems, but administration officials are still refusing to release any numbers on how many people have successfully enrolled. Although 700,000 have applied for coverage through the new online markets, it’s believed only a fraction of that number actually managed to sign up. Before the website went live, an administration estimate projected nearly 500,000 people would sign up in October alone.

The marketplaces are the gateway to obtaining health insurance under the new health care law, which requires most Americans to have coverage by Jan. 1. Middle-class people who don’t have insurance on the job can purchase a private plan with new tax credits to make the premiums more affordable. Low-income people will be steered to an expanded version of Medicaid in states that agree to extend the safety net program.

The federal government is running the insurance markets or taking the lead in 36 states. The rest were set up by states themselves.

Consumers have until Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage to take effect Jan. 1. Under the law, pre-existing medical conditions will no longer be a barrier. But the markets also need lots of young, healthy customers to keep premiums affordable. Open enrollment season extends until Mar. 31.

Zients said almost daily fixes are already having an impact. For example, more than 90 percent of users can now complete one of the first steps, creating an account.

But the application process, which involves submitting and verifying personal information and income details, remains “volatile,” he said. At one point, as few as one-third of users were getting through that part.

Zients said there are two big categories of problems. Performance issues involve the speed and reliability of the website. Functional issues are bugs that keep the software from working as intended. Among the high-priority issues is that insurers are getting enrollments with incomplete, incorrect or duplicative information.

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