Bad to worse: Obamacare website slammed by critics
The federal Obamacare insurance marketplace is being pummeled by a damning series of new disclosures, expert criticism, Republican demands that the Health and Human Services chief resign and presidential displeasure as the tech-troubled website stumbles into its third week of operation.
And even as officials repeatedly claim there is plenty of time to fix the problems at HealthCare.gov, speculation has risen that the Obama administration could fall well short of its goal of enrolling 7 million people in new insurance plans by 2014 because of a crippling set of technical potholes the venture has encountered.
President Barack Obama is "not happy" with the problems, his spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. Carney also said the president wants "accountability" from the federal workers overseeing the rollout of his signature health-reform law.
Obama also said HealthCare.gov, which is offering insurance plans to residents of 36 states, has "way more glitches than I think are acceptable."
The federal and individual state health exchanges are a key part of Obamacare, offering what is supposed to be a menu of affordable insurance options to uninsured or underinsured people so that they can comply with a law that takes effect in 2014 requiring nearly all Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty.
Even avid Obamacare supporters have been deeply critical of the rollout of HealthCare.gov because its serious technical issues imperil the administrations goal of signing up enough healthy people to balance out the costs of insuring sicker, older people who will use more benefits. Experts said right after the Oct. 1 launch date that the site had at best a month to correct its problems, or risk meeting its enrollment goals by March 31, the end of enrollment season.
On Friday, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page story that revealed that insurers not only are getting a tiny number of enrollments from HealthCare.gov, but that even those enrollments contain multiple problems, such as spouses being counted as children, missing data fields, and questions about whether people are actually eligible for insurance.
The Journal story also cited a problem of multiple enrollments for individual people—and also reported that several insurers had been told by federal officials that they should not talk to the media about the issues they are encountering. Insurers are having to manually correct the problems, the Journal said.
USA Today ran a story that quoted experts saying that the information technology system that HealthCare.gov is based on is a decade old, that it faces six months of "constant fixes and updates" while enrollment continues, and "an eventual overhaul of the entire system."
Federal officials on Friday told CNBC.com that the application section of HealthCare.gov continues to be "periodically" taken down from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. "for maintenance."
The Washington Examiner, quoting a person with direct knowledge of the situation, reported that federal officials did not allow the federal website to be fully tested until less than a week before the Oct. 1 launch of HealthCare.gov, and the 16 state-run insurance marketplaces that interact with it. "Normally a system this size would need four-six months of testing and performance tuning, not four-six days," that person told the Examiner.
Even before that, several reports said, the contract to build the site had ballooned earlier this year from an original price of about $94 million to nearly $300 million.
Health-care policy analyst Bob Laszewski, in a blog post, estimated that the federal site had enrolled just 20,000 people over two weeks, which is even lower than the surprisingly low estimate by research firm Millward Brown Digital that 36,000 people had enrolled in the first week.
A sense of how difficult it has been for most people to navigate through the troubled HealthCare.gov site was given in a widely cited tweet Thursday from Kaiser Health News reporter Phil Galewitz: "I did it! On my 64th try, I got an account on @HealthCareGov—but I can't see plans as my applictn is pending."
The Health and Human Services Department has repeatedly refused to release enrollment numbers, saying it will do so in mid-November. Officials on background have disputed Millward Brown's estimates, without providing any data themselves.
But if the estimates prove right, then HealthCare.gov's troubles are potentially devastating.
Some state exchanges get better marks
Washington state, which is running its own exchange, has reported enrollment of 46,715, by far the highest number of reported enrollments by any government-run insurance marketplace. That's despite the fact that Washington's population is only about 6.9 million, or just 2.2 percent of the entire U.S. population.
And Kentucky, which has just 1.4 percent of the U.S. population with 4.4 million people, has signed up the second-highest amount of reported enrollees on its own exchange, 13,734.
Even those numbers are still lower than officials had been hoping for.
But Kentucky's exchange website has been cited for being much easier to use than the federal marketplace.
CGI Federal, an American subsidiary of a Canadian company, was involved in building Kentucky's exchange, and is also the lead contractor in the federal marketplace HealthCare.gov.
And, CGI was also the main contractor in building Hawaii's own health exchange, which has been wracked by tech problems that kept it from fully opening for business for two weeks.
Next Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on the problems of the Obamacare rollout. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has declined the committees request that she appear and answer questions, saying she is unavailable that date.
"It's well past time for the administration to be straight and transparent with the American people. Top administration officials repeatedly testified everything was on track, but the broad technological failures reveal that was not the case," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
"Either the administration was not ready for launch, or it was not up to the job. The president and top officials were quick to boast the number of visitors to HealthCare.gov, but they have since gone silent, refusing to disclose even basic enrollment figures. The rollout has been a complete mess, beyond the worst case scenario, and yet those administration officials responsible have indicated they will not be available to testify next week. This is wholly unacceptable. Secretary Sebelius had time for Jon Stewart, and we expect her to have time for Congress."
HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said "we are in close communication with the committee and have expressed our desire to be responsive to their request" that HHS officials appear to answer questions.
—By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter