Obamacare reboot survives heavy traffic
By: Paige Winfield Cunningham
December 2, 2013 11:52 AM EST
The new and improved Obamacare website struggled under heavy traffic loads on Monday, but still appeared to operate pretty much as the Obama administration has promised: Okay, but not perfect.
After a weekend of final, intensive fixes, officials unveiled a somewhat repaired HealthCare.gov on Sunday and promised that it will work well enough to serve the Americans who want insurance exchange coverage by New Year’s.
Amid unusually-high Monday traffic that hit about 750,000 people by 5:30 pm, not everyone was able to immediately log in. Those who couldn’t get on right away were put in a new virtual “waiting room” and there were no meltdowns like those that characterized the website back in October and early November.
All eyes will be on the website over the next three weeks, as Americans face a Dec. 23 enrollment deadline to get covered Jan. 1. Its performance will help shape the political messaging around the law as Democrats and Republicans in Congress briefly return to Washington for a few weeks before the Christmas break.
But there will be plenty more heated discussion on the Hill next week over why the administration didn’t take a different course when it became clear the website was headed for major technical trouble. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee on Dec. 11. She last appeared before Congress at the end of October, when the website was still failing for most visitors.
For now both parties are maintaining relative silence about the website repairs. Democrats, many of whom were skeptical that the website would work as well as the administration promised, are waiting to see whether its major hitches have really been solved.
The National Republican Congressional Committee charged Monday that the website still isn’t working up to snuff, but Republicans mostly kept the focus on other areas of the Affordable Care Act that they say will hurt Americans.
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa wrote to top insurers Monday asking them to disclosure documents related to Obama’s promise that people could keep the doctors they wanted under the new law—similar to the president’s “if you like your plan you can keep it” promise but one that has so far gotten less scrutiny.
The Department of Health and Human Services noted in an update late Monday that it wasn’t just the log-in experience that had improved. People visiting HealthCare.gov can now also see a lot more detail about various health plans, including physician and hospital networks. And they can do this by “window-shopping,” meaning they don’t have to create an account.
CMS activated the “queuing” system when the web page response time had slowed to more than 2 seconds around 10 a.m. Some users continued to report error messages and delays getting on the site in addition to being put in the queue. Others, including POLITICO staff, didn’t get an automated email message that they could get out of the “waiting room” and start enrolling in coverage until late afternoon, after trying to access the website in the morning.
Stressing the White House’s message that the website isn’t perfect yet, spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged specific areas of the online enrollment system that need improvement — including the ongoing problems with the “834 forms” – the files sent by HealthCare.gov to insurers to finalize enrollment in a specific health plan. He said the files were still being addressed but had been “vastly improved.”
“We believe that the majority of fixes to the 834 forms have been made, including significant ones over the weekend,” he said, adding that the administration would keep working with insurers to make sure remaining problems are addressed.
HHS officials later said they had identified and fixed a bug that they believe would correct a big part of that problem. The bug had been blocking Social Security numbers from that piece of the application.
Carney also said President Barack Obama still intends to enroll in an Obamacare exchange plan, but wouldn’t say how or when. “I don’t have an update for you on that. I know that he will and has said that he will,” he told reporters.
The next clue to how enrollment is going will come mid-month when the Obama administration releases totals for November — and for much of that month the site was still balky. About 100,000 signed up on the federal site last month according to a report by Bloomberg, citing one person with knowledge of the numbers. HHS wouldn’t confirm that on Monday, saying only that the numbers will show an “increase.”
If correct, 100,000, even when combined with some rising state enrollment figures, is just a sliver of the 800,000 the administration hoped for by now. But it’s four times the paltry 27,000 federal signups in October.