White House: Deadline met for fixing health care website
Administration officials announced yesterday that they had met their Saturday deadline for improving HealthCare.gov after completing a series of hardware upgrades and software fixes to the troubled website.
A progress report released yesterday morning by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said: “While we strive to innovate and improve our outreach and systems for reaching consumers, we believe we have met the goal of having a system that will work smoothly for the vast majority of users.”
Government and outside technical employees have worked around the clock for weeks on the fixes so the administration could keep its promise to have the site working smoothly for most people by Nov. 30.
The report served as the basis for a press briefing yesterday morning by Jeffrey Zients, the man President Obama tasked to oversee the fixes.
“The bottom line, HealthCare.gov on Dec. 1 is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1,” when the site was launched, he told reporters.
As a result of the improvements: the average system response time is under 1 second; the error rate is “consistently well below 1 percent”; the online system is stable – not crashing – more than 90 percent of the time; as many as 50,000 shoppers can use the site at the same time, or up to 800,000 visits a day.
At the same time, the report cautioned that more work needs to be done in the weeks and months ahead “to improve and enhance the website and continue to improve the consumer experience.” Officials have also said repeatedly that consumers might still encounter difficulties and urged them to use the call center and seek help from specially trained personnel.
The report also confirms, however, that the administration has yet to meet at least one of its key goals: reducing the average response time of the site to half a second. And government officials, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss ongoing operations, cautioned last week that they will not know if they’ve actually expanded the site’s carrying capacity to 50,000 users at once until they have that many users online in the coming days.
The website was supposed to let consumers shop easily for health insurance, required by the Affordable Care Act when it launched Oct. 1, but the continued technical problems of his signature domestic initiative have been a political disaster for Obama. Nov. 30 was not originally intended to be a key date for the online enrollment system, but it took on outsize political and public importance when administration officials announced five weeks ago that the “vast majority of users” would be able to sign up for insurance through the site by that day.
Zients said that workers made more than 400 bug fixes and upgraded the software used for the enrollment process. The results are additional capacity, faster response time and much improved stability on the website, he said. About 50 fixes were made Saturday night, Zients said.
Now the system is consistently up over 90 percent of the time, Zients said. In comparison, he said, from October to the week ending Nov. 2, the online system was up and functioning only about 43 percent of the time.
“We have a much more stable system that’s reliably open for business,” he said. “HealthCare.gov can now support intended volumes.”
Democratic lawmakers praised the improvements yesterday, as their Republican counterparts offered skepticism about the website and, more broadly, President Obama’s signature health care law.
“This is the equivalent of having a great item that you want to buy in the store but not being able to get though the front door,” Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “It sounds like the front door has been opened successfully now.”
Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said on the same program that he hopes “the efficacy of this is much better today and will improve.” But he added that he thinks Americans will encounter “a lot of negative surprises” as they enroll in plans offered on the new health care exchanges.
A combination of federal employees, outside contractors and a handful of technical and management experts have worked for five weeks to improve the website’s performance as the White House has come under fierce criticism from its political opponents and some consumers.
It may be hard, however, to independently assess how well the site has met the administration’s goals of working smoothly for “the vast majority of users” until it experiences a real-time surge in high volume from consumers during peak demand.
The Obama administration has been under intense public and political pressure to meet its self-imposed deadline for correcting the many defects that became apparent when HealthCare.gov opened Oct. 1. Whether the upbeat assessment in the report and in yesterday’s call with reporters is warranted will only become clear as more Americans try to buy health insurance in coming weeks and months.
Even on Saturday, some applicants who tried enrolling hours after a key upgrade was supposed to have been completed said they were unable to complete the process.
“I only made it halfway through the second section,” said Liz Gallops, an insurance broker in Winston-Salem, N.C., who has tried several times to see the coverage options available for herself, her husband and her daughter. “I entered my dependents, but the system continued to ask me who my dependents were and would only let me add new, not claim the ones I had already entered.”
On Saturday night, technical workers made a few software changes but not any significant hardware upgrades, according to a government official familiar with the project. Federal health officials said Saturday that they had successfully installed new servers Friday night to support a “critical system database which is already allowing more users to move through that part of the system more quickly than before.” They also said the site was performing well Saturday, with low overall error rates and response times despite heavier than usual weekend traffic.
Administration officials have said for several weeks that they define success as having “the vast majority of users” be able to navigate the site and sign up for insurance. While they initially did not define what that meant, White House press secretary Jay Carney said last month that the administration’s aim was to have 80 percent of users be able to enroll through the site. Those working on the project have set speed and error rates as a way of measuring that goal.
Dec. 23 is the deadline to sign up for coverage effective Jan. 1. In anticipation of high volume in the next three weeks, administration officials said they have set up a system to help consumers if they can’t immediately get access to the site during peak demand. If consumers visit the site when it is at capacity, they may leave an email address to receive an email notification from the site with a link that allows them to “go to the front of the queue when they come back to the site,” Zients said.