Obamacare glitches: Was website fixed this weekend?

Obamacare: Glitches on the website for health insurance stalled sign ups in the first week. The Obamacare site was shutdown evenings over the weekend to try to fix the glitches.

By , Associated Press

It's not the sign that the Obama administration wants people to see on its health overhaul website: down for repairs.

Using overnight hours this past weekend to debug the system, the Health and Human Service Department hoped to fix the technological problems that overwhelmed the launch of new health insurance markets. This past week, glitches have frustrated millions of consumers unable to complete their applications.

Enrollment functions of the healthcare.gov site were unavailable during off-peak hours this past weekend The site was be taken down at 1 a.m. EDT each night for a few hours.

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The enrollment function was back online at little before 8 a.m. EDT Saturday, but was working slowly because of heavy traffic.

"Please stay on this page," said a notice. "We're working to make the experience better, and we don't want you to lose your place in line. We'll send you to the login page as soon as we can."

There was no indication of how long the wait would be.

In an interview with the Associated Press Friday, President Obama's advice to frustrated citizens: "They definitely shouldn't give up. Typically, what happens is when people are shopping for insurance, they visit a site or make phone calls or look at brochures five, six, seven times before they make a final decision. And they're not going to have to pay premiums until December -- the insurance doesn't start until January. So they'll have plenty of time.

And my message to them would be, each day the wait times are reduced. Each day, more and more people are signing up, and the product will save you money. People will save hundreds of dollars -- in some cases, thousands of dollars -- as a consequence of being able to get health insurance that is priced for them and gives them the choices that they need."

Credit card companies, banks and other online service providers regularly take down websites for repairs. That may also become a feature of the new insurance program.

An effort by congressional Republicans to defund or delay the health care law led to an impasse with Democrats over passing a budget bill, and that sparked a partial government shutdown Tuesday. Republicans quickly pointed to the website problems as another reason that the law they call "Obamacare" should be pulled back.

"Americans have seen once again that Obamacare is not ready for prime time," Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, said in a statement Friday. "A dysfunctional website is the least of that law's problems."

The administration put the best face on the situation, noting the unexpectedly strong interest from millions of consumers.

"Americans are excited to look at their options for health coverage, with record demand in the first days of the marketplaces," said the release announcing the planned fixes.

The statement was headlined: "Health Insurance Marketplace Open for Business - Week One Success."

The state-level markets were designed to be the gateway to health insurance for people who don't have access to coverage on the job. Middle-class consumers will be able to buy government-subsidized private plans, while the poor and near-poor will be steered to Medicaid in states agreeing to expand the program.

Federal and state websites experienced problems this week. Some states, including Maryland, have also announced they are scheduling repairs.

The federal site, which serves 36 states, drew millions of users, an indication of strong consumer interest. Yet many people were unable to get on the site. They encountered a screen that told them to wait, and they did, sometimes for hours. Refreshing the screen only sent them to the back of the line.

Quite a few got hung up trying to create security questions to protect their accounts. The drop-down menus providing the questions would not populate. As a result, consumers could not advance through the application process and learn if they were eligible for a tax credit to help pay premiums, much less pick a plan.

Some who did make it through were timed out because they took too long comparing plans.

At the end of the first day at most a handful of people had managed to successfully enroll through the federal site.

However, by Friday, enrollments seemed to be picking up — though not yet at desired levels. The administration is not releasing numbers.

"We are pleased that enrollment for health care coverage through the new marketplaces is picking up," the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association said in a statement. "We expect enrollment to continue to increase."

The so-called Blues are major players in the individual insurance market, but some smaller insurers have yet to see any new customers.

By Monday, "there will be significant improvements in the online consumer experience," HHS said.

The upgrades include extra capacity for more users to get into the system, more technicians working round-the-clock to fix problems, and new pathways to get to the application faster. No details were given. Call centers are also getting more staff and HHS said wait times are now down to less than a minute.

The administration previously announced it is adding equipment to handle the high volume of users. Now it looks like software fixes are also needed.

Consumers have until Dec. 15 to enroll for coverage that starts Jan. 1.

Because of the glitches, in Florida organizations were trying to build on momentum for the health insurance program even though there was little they could do.

Most of the counselors hired through federal grants to help sign people up for health insurance quickly went to Plan B when the website failed Tuesday morning. Several community health centers around the state, fearing the worst, printed paper applications in advance, even translating them into other languages. Other groups took down consumers' contact information, promising to schedule appointments when the website begins to work better.

There was an odd mix of excitement that the Affordable Care Act was garnering so much attention and frustration that it wasn't accessible.

John Foley, an attorney and certified counselor for Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said he's tried unsuccessfully to log into the system almost non-stop since 5 a.m. Tuesday. A frustrated Foley said his navigators would not try again to enroll anyone until Monday.

"I am too worried to even involve a consumer at this point. I would hate to see a problem in the middle of the process," he said. "I am very worried that people will lose faith in the system. Clearly we are losing most, if not all, of the momentum that was built up leading to open enrollment."

Federal health officials played up the high volume traffic, noting 7 million visits to HealthCare.gov in the first two days. Employees were working around the clock to fix issues and by Thursday had increased capacity to the server and cut down wait times by one-third. But it's unclear when the problems will fully be resolved. Most people were still unable to access the site on Friday.

Cigna, which offers several insurance plans through the exchange, said it had successfully enrolled a small number of consumers Thursday using the website. Counselors at a Miami Gardens enrollment event that night with Sen. Oscar Braynon were also able to access the website long enough to enroll a few people on the spot.

"There have been a lot of successful moments and every event we attend has been overcrowded with people who want to learn more and get a better understanding of the process," said Jerson Dulis, a counselor with Broward Community & Family Health Centers, Inc.

Turnout has been uneven at events to sign up in-person with a counselor. Counselors sat alone at a Pensacola office Tuesday and also at a Fort Lauderdale library for much of Thursday. But at Borinquen Health Care Center in Miami, more than 400 people wanted to sign up for a plan and asked for more information about their options.

Valerie Carr, a 46-year-old Kendall resident, hasn't had insurance in years. She doesn't qualify for Medicaid because she doesn't have children so she pays about $170 a month for medication for her mental illness, plus regular psychiatrist and therapy appointments. Under the new health law, insurers are required to cover certain essential benefits, including mental health, and they are barred from charging more for having those pre-existing conditions. Carr tried to sign up at a community health center in South Miami this week and counselors said they'd contact her when the website was working again.

Federal health officials declined to say how many signed up for health insurance this week and likely won't release those figures until mid-November. It's also unclear whether the problems are only because of high traffic or a combination of programming errors.

The delays come three months after the Government Accountability Office said a smooth and timely rollout could not be guaranteed because the online system was not fully completed or tested. Experts said the Obama administration may have rushed to meet the Oct. 1 deadline.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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