'The system is down': Obamacare glitches go public, reasons unclear

Reuters

By Sharon Begley and Caroline Humer

NEW YORK, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Blank boxes where securityquestions are supposed to appear. Pleas to "be patient." Errormessages galore. Notices that "the system is busy right now."Web pages timing out before they load. Garbled lines of textriddled with stray question marks.

Technology experts and government officials were stumpedabout the reasons for the computer glitches plaguing the Obamaadministration's launch of new health insurance exchanges. They variously blamed an unexpected deluge ofcustomers and outright errors that information technology (IT)teams labored throughout the day to fix.

Officials scrambled just to keep up with what was workingand what was not. In a late-afternoon call with reporters,Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the Centers for Medicare &Medicaid Services (CMS), said that the federal website runningthe 36 exchanges operated by CMS had "added capacity" to addressthe problems with the security questions. Told that users werestill blocked by security-question snafus, she said: "We aremaking improvements as we speak."

In one of the biggest mysteries, the website for New YorkState of Health received 10 million visits by Tuesday afternoon,a deluge a spokesman called "overwhelming and unanticipated."

Outside IT experts speculated that New York's astronomicalnumbers might reflect repeated "refreshing" by users. But it wasnot clear why that would occur in New York alone. Arkansas hadabout 16,000 visitors in the same period, and Connecticut'sexchange logged 34,500 visitors by mid-afternoon.

Some exchanges were hobbled even by much lighter trafficthan New York's. Kentucky's Kynect exchange was "swamped" with60,000 visitors, Gov. Steve Beshar said, with the "crush ofhits" revealing a glitch that kept the exchange from filingapplications for several hours.

The federal government's healthcare.gov portal logged over2.8 million visitors by Tuesday afternoon, Tavenner said, or"seven times more users than have ever been on the Medicare.govat one time." Many visitors were greeted with: "The system isdown at the moment. We're working to resolve the issue as soonas possible. Please try again later."

It was not clear that volume alone explained the problems.

Maryland delayed its exchange opening due to "connectivity"issues. Minnesota did not try to launch until the afternoon tomake sure it could access federal databases. Coloradotemporarily threw in the towel soon after its exchange opened,suspending customers' ability to create accounts for a fewhours.

Hawaii enrollment was so stymied it could be the end of theweek before customers can assess plans and sign up for coverage.

ACHILLES HEEL

IT had for months been viewed as the exchanges' most likelyAchilles heel, and on opening day experts were divided as to thecause of the snags. The best guess of outside IT experts wasthat traffic volume more than software bugs was at fault.

One insurer offering policies on the New York exchange saidits technical experts "read the error messages as the system isjust buckling under high demand," adding, "it doesn't look likeit's a bug. Once they've spun up more servers, the site shouldstabilize."

"There been a huge amount of Internet volume of peopletrying to access the websites and that is either slowing down oroverwhelming the system," said Caroline Pearson, who runs thehealth reform practice at consulting firm Avalere Health. Shesaid at least some of the traffic could have represented thecurious onlookers and stakeholders in Obamacare, rather thanuninsured consumers.

Molina HealthCare, which plans to sell on nine stateexchanges, was stymied by some sites. California worked; NewMexico didn't. "That's another important state for us," saidChief Executive J. Mario Molina. "But we weren't able to get in,so I don't know if it's a technical problem or if they were justinundated and the volumes were high."

On the other hand, CMS's Tavenner said that thesecurity-question snag was "one of the glitches we correctedtoday," implying that it was a pure software-coding problem.After she spoke, however, dozens of Reuters reporters continuedto report encountering that and other problems.

Some of the 15 states running their own exchanges werehardly better off than the federal website that powers the other36, even if their technology was considered more advanced.Richard Onizuka, chief executive of the Washington HealthBenefit Exchange, said that about an hour after its 7:30 a.m.local time launch "some users were experiencing slow loadingtimes or difficulty completing their application," and the sitewas placed "in maintenance mode" - shut down for several hours.

Unlike in other states, Washington's malfunction is "not acapacity issue," said spokeswoman Bethany Frey, but did notelaborate.

'BE PATIENT'

The security questions that are central to insuring thatpeople are who they say they are - a potential glitch in themarketplaces that critics have warned about for months - wereparticularly problematic.

On the Texas exchange, answers to the security questionswere initially met with the warning that two answers cannot bethe same - even if they weren't - or that they were in the wrongformat. After a few more tries the questions did not show up atall. Virtually all the federally run exchanges, from Maine tothe Carolinas and from Iowa to Arizona, had the same IT flaw.

Would-be users were repeatedly asked to "be patient," evenwhen they tried to access chat boxes and other devices meant asworkarounds to IT problems.

In Michigan, opening a chat box to ask a question yieldedrepeated messages saying, "Please be patient while we're helpingother people." After an hour the empty box closed with thestatement, "your chat session is over, thanks for contacting usand we hope we've answered your questions. Have a great day."

Even commercial sites stumbled. Ehealth, which receivedfederal permission to sell Obamacare policies, was able to sellcoverage to people in Connecticut, California, Maryland, Texasand Florida but not New York, New Jersey or Rhode Island.

Chief Executive Gary Lauer said it would be weeks beforeeHealth's website could determine customers' eligibility forfederal subsidies: the company had received the data it needs todo that from federal officials only in the last few days, toolate to have integrated it into existing IT.

"We have to work though what's called a pipe in the federalexchange and we are integrating all of that right now," Lauersaid.

Access to federal data sites was also an issue forHealthAviator.com, another private website that will sellsubsidy-eligible plans.

"Based on the issues the federal marketplace is havingtoday, we, too, do not have accessibility to enrollindividuals," said chief executive John Adair. He said hebelieved the situation could continue until late October andcalled the government's IT performance "disappointing at best."

When some users logged back into exchanges after gettingstuck on an earlier attempt, the application did not resumewhere they last completed an entry but took them back to stepone.

Bob Hanson, spokesman for the Kansas Insurance Department,said that state officials have been warning people for weeks notto try to sign up on Tuesday: "We're advising people to wait aweek or two."

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