Unclear yet if crucial overhaul of Obamacare website a success

Reuters
A man looks over the Affordable Care Act signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this photo illustration
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A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October 2, 2013 photo illustration. A crucial weekend for the troubled website that is the backbone of President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul appears to be off to a shaky start, as the U.S. government took the HealthCare.gov site offline for an unusually long maintenance period into Saturday morning. REUTERS/Mike Segar/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH POLITICS)

By Sharon Begley and Roberta Rampton

(Reuters) - Americans got their first look on Saturday at an overhaul of the troubled enrollment website at the heart of President Barack Obama's healthcare law, but it was unclear yet if the White House had made good on its pledge to fix the glitches.

The Obama administration promised five weeks ago that by this weekend it would fix HealthCare.gov, the site designed to help people sign up for medical coverage but which has been plagued by errors, outages, and slow speeds since a disastrous October 1 launch.

Account creation and log-in functions appeared to work smoothly on the site on Saturday, but it was uncertain whether it could handle target traffic loads of 50,000 users at once.

HealthCare.gov is a key portal for Obama's signature domestic achievement, the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which aims to extend coverage to millions of people and reduce healthcare costs.

Making Obamacare work has enormous political stakes for the administration and its Democratic allies who are heading into congressional elections next year.

The administration said on Saturday that 90 percent of website users can now create an account on the system.

"We're on target to meet our stated goal for the site to work for the vast majority of users," said Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency responsible for the website.

But some information technology experts said the metric cited by the agency was misleading, noting that a claim of anything below 100 percent success was impossible to verify.

"It prevents anyone from the outside from contradicting them," said Jonathan Wu, co-founder of the consumer financial website ValuePenguin. He said only those working on the website know whether the 90-percent figure is accurate.

And there is little insight on how well the website works beyond the first step, where users choose a password and enter an email address.

Far more difficult to gauge, Wu said, is whether the website is better at verifying identities and calculating government subsidies for those whose income falls below 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

Navigator groups - those tasked with helping people sign up for new medical benefits - had not planned for a busy weekend following the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday. Several groups contacted by Reuters said they would not be open, while others described a trickle of would-be applicants on Saturday.

In McAllen, Texas, the group MHP (Migrant Health Promotion) found that the website - while improved - still has glitches, particularly at the later stages of the process where subsidies are calculated, according to Rachel Udow, who oversees the program.

"That was a barrier to paying the first month's premium," she said, explaining that insurance carriers could not determine how much to charge the customer's credit card. "The problem came right at the point of paying."

LOOMING DEADLINES

The Obama administration hopes eventually to enroll about 7 million uninsured and under-insured people in 2014 under the new law, with many of those consumers expected to qualify for subsidies.

To work, the program must draw millions of young, healthy consumers whose participation in the new insurance exchanges is key to keeping costs in check.

If the website does not work for the "vast majority" of visitors this weekend as the administration has promised, uninsured Americans could face problems getting coverage by an initial December 23 deadline.

It also could create ripples that extend to the 2014 elections when control of the U.S. House of Representatives, now dominated by Republicans, and the Senate, where Democrats have a majority, will be up for grabs.

Congressional Democrats facing re-election already have shown signs of distancing themselves from the president and his healthcare program. If the website does not show significant improvement soon, some Democrats might call for extending Obamacare's final March 31 enrollment deadline for 2014.

That would delay the fines that are mandated by the law for those who do not have insurance by that date, a scenario that insurers say would destabilize the market. It also would fuel Republicans' arguments that Obamacare is fatally flawed and should be scrapped.

With Republican lawmakers busy in their districts on the holiday weekend, political reaction on Saturday was muted.

Obama's approval ratings have plunged with the site's problems and after his admission that he overreached in promising that everyone who liked their healthcare plan would be able to keep it under the new law.

"It is a lot harder to reboot public trust than it is to reboot software," said David Brailer, chief executive of the Health Evolution Partners private equity firm and a health official in former President George W. Bush's administration.

SUNDAY BRIEFING

On Friday evening, ahead of the self-imposed Saturday deadline to get the insurance shopping website working for the "vast majority" of users, CMS announced it was taking it down for an unusually long 11-hour maintenance period.

CMS is slated to take the site down again between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. EST (0600-1100 GMT) on Sunday to perform more upgrades, and Jeffrey Zients, the Obama aide tasked with leading the rescue mission, was set to brief reporters on the site's progress at 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT) on Sunday.

Officials have been careful to say that the overhauled site won't work for everyone and could still be overwhelmed by traffic at times.

"There will be moments, most likely in the middle of the day, where demand will be greater than that capacity," Zients told reporters earlier this week.

His tech team created a new "queueing" feature that, in peak periods, will suggest a better time to return to the site. The administration has also directed users to visit it during off-peak hours in the morning, evening and weekend.

(Editing by David Lindsey, Michele Gershberg and Paul Simao)

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