J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on the difficulties plaguing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Fixing the Obamacare website: a status report in three numbers

Kathleen Sebelius, in Senate testimony, said a 'couple of hundred' problems remain to be fixed, just 24 days before a promised Nov. 30 deadline to get the Obamacare site working properly.

Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday that the website for Obamacare is now able to process about “17,000 registrants per hour ... with almost no errors.”

That sounds like a big step of progress. It hints at a speed of enrollment that could allow the website to catch up from its trouble-prone rollout starting Oct. 1.

The problem: Not long after Ms. Sebelius offered that promising detail to Congress, a website spokeswoman reported that the software is far from fixed.

“The site is performing slowly” on Wednesday, said Julie Bataille of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an agency under Sebelius that is overseeing the website.

She said that many users are having problems logging in or enrolling, but that “the site has not gone down.”

Getting the site fixed is a vital priority for the Obama administration, since its Affordable Care Act reforms can’t succeed without a relatively smooth process for people to sign up.

How are things really progressing toward the goal of fixing HealthCare.gov by Nov. 30?

The Obama administration is being guarded in sharing details, but here are some numbers that may provide a better idea than the 17,000-per-hour figure that Sebelius gave in her testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday:

“Couple of hundred.” That’s how many problems still need to be fixed on the website, Sebelius told the Senate committee members. Each day, tech teams are trying to fix some of these problems, but new ones can also crop up.

Twenty-four. That’s how many days remain to meet the Nov. 30 target, by which Sebelius is promising that the website will work well for the vast majority of users. In practice, that means the site needs to accommodate an expected rush of people seeking to put insurance policies in place by Jan. 1.

A second rush could occur in the weeks prior to March 31 – the current deadline under the Affordable Care Act by which Americans must have insurance or owe a tax penalty.

Both Sebelius and Ms. Bataille acknowledge that the timetable to get the site working properly by the end of November isn’t easy. “We are on a very aggressive schedule,” Bataille told reporters during an operations update Wednesday afternoon. She said some of the problems are perplexing because they occur only sporadically.

Eight hundred. That’s the number of “new enrollments on last night’s dashboard,” according to notes from an Oct. 24 CMS “war room” meeting to track progress on the website. A batch of notes, representing war-room meetings for much of October, was released by the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean that 800 is a definitive number of enrollments for the day or evening of Oct. 23. But it might be a pretty good hint at the pace of signups for insurance that are occurring on the site.

The administration says formal numbers for October signups will be released next week.

In the meantime, another hint of the pace comes from the insurance firms who are notified when consumers enroll in Obamacare via HealthCare.gov.

Robert Laszewski, a consultant for the insurance industry, writes in a blog post that “enrollments continue to trickle in." He says some large health plans – the kind that might end up enrolling 100,000 or more people for Obamacare to hit a projected nationwide enrollment of 7 million people – "have enrolled only about 100 [to] 200 people over the first 35 days via HealthCare.gov.”

The site still has challenges at both the front end, where Americans go through the enrollment process, and at the back end, where policy issuers see flaws in data transmission.

Bataille says the tech teams are making progress in getting data to flow properly to insurers, but this issue remains at the top of the fix list – as it has been for many days now.

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