HealthCare.gov working much better, officials declare

The White House reports a 'vastly improved' online system used to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, now able to handle 50,000 individuals at a time and more than 800,000 applicants per day.

Jon Elswick/AP
Officials say many fixes have been made to the HealthCare.gov website used to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, allowing the site to 'work smoothly' for the 'vast majority' of Americans trying to sign up for new health insurance under 'Obamacare.'

After two months of massive glitches, bugs, and political warfare that have undercut the Affordable Care Act, officials report a “vastly improved” online system able to successfully handle 50,000 individuals at a time and more than 800,000 applicants per day.

“The bottom line is that HealthCare.gov on Dec. 1 is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1,” chief White House troubleshooter Jeff Zients told reporters in a conference call Sunday morning. “The site is now stable and operating at its intended capacity, with greatly improved performance.”

The Obama administration had set Saturday, Nov. 30, as a deadline for HealthCare.gov to “work smoothly” for the “vast majority” of Americans trying to sign up for new health insurance under "Obamacare."

An eight-page “Progress and Performance Report,” together with Sunday’s conference call lasting just under an hour, was the administration’s attempt to show that problems – although some remain – have been handled with “private-sector speed and focus,” as Mr. Zients put it.

A few weeks into the October rollout of HealthCare.gov, the system was down about 60 percent of the time, marred by hundreds of software bugs and insufficient hardware and what officials now acknowledge were “inadequate management oversight and coordination among technical teams [preventing] real-time decisionmaking and efficient responses to address the issues with the site.”

The result for hundreds of thousands of people was many frustrating hours spent staring at their computer screens.

But over the past five weeks, the White House reports, “substantial progress has been made improving HealthCare.gov and getting the system to where it needs to be.” According to the report card released Sunday, results include the following:

• Hundreds of software fixes, hardware upgrades, and continuous monitoring have measurably improved the consumer experience.

• Site capacity is stable at its intended level.

• Operating metrics are greatly improved, and activity levels demonstrate the site is working for consumers.

Specifically, report Zients and those working with him, “the team has knocked more than 400 bug fixes and software improvements off the punch list.” About 50 of those fixes were made as recently as Saturday night.

Additional hardware, including dedicated servers and upgraded storage units, together with increased firewall capacity have helped improve system “throughput.”

“In effect, we’ve enlarged the system on-ramp from one lane to four lanes,” Zients told reporters.

Meanwhile, average system response time has been cut from eight seconds a month ago to under one second, and per-page system timeouts or failures have declined from more than 6 percent to “well under 1 percent.”

As of this weekend – when HealthCare.gov saw higher-than-usual usage – system stability as measured by uptime had risen to 95.1 percent. At the beginning of November, it was just 42.9 percent.

Critics and skeptics point out that all of this information is coming from the Obama administration itself, which has a strong interest in seeing the Affordable Care Act succeed. More definitive proof will come as the deadlines come closer for enrolling in the system and actually purchasing health-care policies.

Even with the repairs in place, the site still won't be able to do everything the administration wants, and companion sites for small businesses and Spanish speakers have been delayed. Questions remain about the stability of the site and the quality of the data it delivers to insurers.

The nation's largest health insurer trade group said significant problems remain.

Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive officer of America's Health Insurance Plans, said insurers have complained that enrollment data sent to them from the website include too much incorrect, duplicative, garbled, or missing information. She said the problems must be cleared up to guarantee consumers the coverage they signed up for effective Jan. 1.

It’s one thing to enroll. But having the system actually connect individuals with insurance providers, and then make sure coverage is established and paid for, involves several more important steps with the potential for glitches, experts note.

"The real tests are: Were my premium payment and subsidy accurately calculated? Am I getting the coverage I signed up for? If my income situation changes, will the reconciliation occur in a timely fashion?" says Rick Howard, a research director at technology consultant Gartner.

As the anticipated surge of those applying online increases, a queuing system has been put in place for when HealthCare.gov is at maximum capacity.

When site traffic lightens, individuals will receive an e-mail notifying them that they can log back in and go to the head of the line.

This report includes material from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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