Traffic surges on Obamacare website but problems persist

More Americans are seeking health insurance through the problem-plagued website as glitches get ironed out

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2013, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2013, 5:03pm

 A surge of visitors clogged the US government’s revamped healthcare insurance shopping website on Monday, signalling that President Barack Obama’s administration has some way to go in fixing the portal that showcases his signature domestic policy.

Facing its first big test since officials proclaimed over the weekend that they had met their deadline to make run smoothly for the “vast majority” of users, the site performed markedly better than it did during its disastrous launch two months ago – but was still short of the crisply running insurance marketplace Obama once touted.

By 5.30pm local time, the website had logged 750,000 visitors, the White House said, nearly all the 800,000 daily users the refurbished site is supposed to be able to handle.

In states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Texas and North Carolina, the rush of traffic led to the deployment of a new feature on the site – a waiting page that said there were “a lot of visitors right now,” and put people in line to be served, usually within minutes. By Monday evening, officials reported that the site was running smoothly, with no waiting.

That was significant progress for a website that has become the face of one of the biggest crises of Obama’s administration, one that has undermined the Democratic president’s promotion of an activist government and threatened to become a drag on the Democrats 2014 election prospects, when control of Congress will be at stake.

But’s hiccups on Monday fuelled questions about whether it will be able to enrol several million uninsured and under-insured Americans in private coverage by the end of March. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was passed in 2010.

More immediately, the website will be pushed further by waves of visitors seeking to sign up for insurance by December 23, the deadline to get coverage that begins on January 1.

For all of the efforts by technical specialists to improve the site, officials still are scrambling to repair and install functions on the ‘back end’ of the Obamacare system that are needed to finalise enrolments with insurers. That could create another headache for the administration starting in January, if the enrolments for some who sign up for coverage via the website are not finalised before their coverage is supposed to begin.

“The real challenges remain, and that’s downstream,” said Rick Howard, research director for the technology consultant Gartner. “The real error rate will be in the billing transactions and how accurate the billing information is and how accurate the premium calculation is.”

The administration said that in meetings with insurers and healthcare officials this week, it will refocus attention on the functions needed to handle insurance payments, including federal subsidies for low-income consumers buying coverage.

Without those functions working properly, and websites for 14 state-run marketplaces could have difficulty operating next year.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, has said because of the system’s administrative shortcomings, some insurers are receiving inaccurate or duplicative information about enrollees.

At the White House on Monday, Obama spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged that “the work is not done” on the website.

Carney added that the waiting page that some visitors saw was created in part because officials knew that Monday would put a strain on the system.

“We absolutely anticipated that on this day in particular, because it is the first workday after the deadline we set ... to make sure that the website was functioning effectively for the vast majority of users, we would see a surge in visitors,” Carney said.

For the White House and supporters of Obamacare, the encouraging news on Monday was that the pace of enrolments in healthcare programmes has increased dramatically since October 1, when the administration’s enthusiastic launch of was quickly tempered by problems with the website that allowed few people to enrol.

Preliminary government data indicated that about 100,000 people chose a health plan through during November, as officials and tech specialists scrambled to improve the site’s capacity, according to a source familiar with the issue. In October, only about 27,000 had enrolled via the site.

The federally run site handles enrolments for 36 states. The 14 other states and Washington DC have their own exchanges under Obamacare. The state-run exchanges have had fewer technical problems and generally are in states that are most enthusiastic about Obamacare, so their enrolment figures have been relatively high, including 80,000 in California and 50,000 in New York.

Official November data will be released in two weeks. But if the November estimate for enrolments is correct, it means at least 290,000 people have signed up for private insurance through the Obamacare exchanges.

That is still far short of the administration’s projection in September that nearly 500,000 people would sign up through the insurance marketplaces in the first month, according to documents obtained by congressional investigators.

Ultimately, 7 million Americans were expected to sign up for private health insurance offered through the online marketplaces for 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The website’s issues have put that goal in doubt, and administration officials have begun playing down the importance of getting 7 million enrollees in Obamacare for next year. On Monday, Carney emphasised that it was the CBO, not the White House, that produced that estimate for total enrolment.

Non-profit groups helping consumers enrol in Obamacare coverage said on Monday they were encouraged by the improvements to and are starting new efforts to boost enrolment.

AIDS Alabama, which had been relying largely on paper applications to sign people up until last week, noticed major improvement in the website, said Lauren Banks, the group’s director of policy and advocacy.

Banks said the website was still not working perfectly – the organisation noticed a glitch last week that seemed to produce incorrect information about tax subsidies for low-income enrollees.

Jill Hanken, who runs an Obamacare enrolment programme at the Virginia Poverty Law Centre, said, “We’re hearing more success stories” about the website. “I think things have turned the corner.”