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Will Obamacare get its act together in time?

HealthCare.gov, which under Obamacare is the federally run exchange for 36 states, is still overwhelmed four days after going live. It will undergo 'scheduled maintenance' this weekend, officials announced late Friday.

By Staff writer / October 4, 2013

A busy screen appears on the laptop of a certified application counselor as he attempts to enroll an interested person for Affordable Care Act insurance, at the Borinquen Medical Center in Miami on Oct. 2. The federal government's online marketplace, HealthCare.gov, will undergo 'scheduled maintenance' this weekend, following a problem-filled four days since it opened Oct. 1, the Department of Health and Human Services announced late Oct. 4.

Joe Skipper/Reuters

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Washington

[Updated 8 p.m. EDT] HealthCare.gov, the federal government’s online marketplace that serves as the portal to its new health-insurance program, will undergo “scheduled maintenance” this weekend, following a problem-filled four days since it opened Oct. 1, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced late Friday.

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Stories of frustration had been piling up about the site: People who can’t register. People who preregistered before opening day, but can’t log in. People who get five or six screens in, then the site crashes.

The site serves the residents of the 36 states that opted not to set up their own online health insurance marketplaces, or “exchanges,” under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“The enhancements we are making will enable more simultaneous users to successfully create an account and move through the application and plan shopping process,” HHS said in a press release.

During the scheduled maintenance, the call center (800-318-2596) will still be available to assist consumers, the release said.  

“We expect that Monday, less than a week after the marketplace opening, there will be significant improvements in the online consumer experience,” HHS said.

HHS touted statistics that showed great interest in the new ACA health-insurance program: HealthCare.gov has received 8.6 million unique visitors. The call center has received 406,000 calls. And there have been 225,000 requests for online chats.

So far, there’s no public information on how many people, if any, have successfully signed up for insurance via HealthCare.gov. Reporters desperate to find someone who had enrolled found 21-year-old Chad Henderson in Georgia, now enjoying his 15 minutes of fame. But his story fell apart after a Washington Post reporter tracked him down and interviewed him (with an assist from the libertarian site Reason.org).

Among the states that set up their own exchanges, there are some bright spots, foremost among them Kentucky and Connecticut. California and Colorado, too, are enrolling people, after some overloading issues. Maryland has had a lot of challenges. The system there is working, but it’s maddeningly slow, say people who visited the site.

None of the problems are shocking, and can be overcome, say management experts.

“I spend most of my time working with CIOs [chief information officers] of large enterprises, and when we look at something like this – the complexity of the different states and the pent-up energy and demand and ideas around signing up – it certainly wasn’t surprising that there were problems,” says Eric Johnson, dean of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, in Nashville, Tenn.

The challenge, though, isn’t just getting HealthCare.gov and the other exchanges up to speed. It’s getting them to function smoothly soon enough to accommodate the flood of people who want to sign up for health insurance – with a possible federal subsidy – in time to start coverage on Jan. 1. To be covered on Jan. 1, one must enroll by Dec. 15. (The open enrollment period, though, goes all the way to March 31.)

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