Tech ‘surge’ to tackle Obamacare websites
By: Jason Millman
October 20, 2013 01:38 PM EDT
The Obama administration Sunday said it’s called on “the best and brightest” tech experts from both government and the private sector to help fix the troubled website at the root of the Obamacare enrollment problems.
The unusual Sunday 600-word blog post from HHS was the first update in more than a week on the many failings of an expensive website that HHS itself described as “frustrating for many Americans.” But it didn’t specify who the administration had called in, or when the American people would see clear-cut results on Healthcare.gov.
“We’re kind of thinking of it as a tech ‘surge,’” an HHS official told POLITICO.
The Health and Human Services statement didn’t explain everything that’s wrong, or give technical details about the repairs underway. It outlined some steps being taken to fix the site, including updates with “new code that includes bug fixes.” The department also says it’s installing monitors to catch parts of the website that are proving the most troublesome for consumers. And it also said it had seen some improvements in wait times and consumer access to the website, the online portal to health insurance exchanges or marketplaces the federal government is running in 36 states.
The administration said one essential component — the federal data hub — is working as hoped. That hub is crucial. It links federal agencies to determine an applicant’s eligibility for Obamacare coverage and subsidies. States running their own exchanges have to be able to draw on that data as well, and some of them have been doing so successfully.
The HealthCare.gov glitches are not just a high-profile embarrassment; delays could make it harder for the administration to reach its enrollment goals for Obamacare, a centerpiece of the Obama presidency. And they provide even more fodder for the intense GOP opposition to the health law which led to the government shutdown.
President Barack Obama is holding a health care event Monday, and House Republicans are opening hearings into the rough Obamacare rollout later this week. Some Republicans have called on HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to resign or be fired.
Sen. John McCain on CNN Sunday said the whole Obamacare rollout has been “a fiasco”
“Send Air Force One out to Silicon Valley, load it up with some smart people, bring them back to Washington, and fix this problem. It’s ridiculous. And everybody knows that,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
HHS didn’t mention Silicon Valley — or Air Force One— but implied it was doing something along those lines.
“Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov,” HHS said.
“We’re also putting in place tools and processes to aggressively monitor and identify parts of HealthCare.gov where individuals are encountering errors or having difficulty using the site, so we can prioritize and fix them,” it added. “We are also defining new test processes to prevent new issues from cropping up as we improve the overall service and deploying fixes to the site during off-peak hours on a regular basis.”
HHS says the updates are improving the shopping and health plan enrollment experience. Consumers have to go through many steps online — creating accounts, logging into the system, getting their identity verified, seeing and comparing health plan options, getting subsidy and cost quotes, and finally choosing a plan and signing up for it.
People have encountered problems at every step of the way — if they even get past the first step.
“The initial consumer experience of HealthCare.gov has not lived up to the expectations of the American people,” HHS said. “We are committed to doing better.”
HealthCare.gov has received more than 19 million unique visits since the Oct. 1 launch, according to the updated numbers released Sunday. As of Saturday, about 476,000 applications have been filed in state-run and federal-run health insurance exchanges — but that’s just applications, not actually getting covered. About half of those applications came from the 36 states where the feds are running the exchanges.
Those numbers, however, don’t indicate how many people have successfully completed enrollment. The administration won’t release those numbers until next month — and it’s likely to be much smaller than the numbers of who have started the application process.
The HHS blog post didn’t provide a timeline for when the administration expects major problems to be resolved. A CMS official said the administration plans to do regular fixes to the system during off-peak hours on a regular basis.