'A long way' to go: Obamacare site still struggles
The still "very slow" federal Obamacare insurance website "remains a long way from where it needs to be," the management guru responsible for getting it fixed said on Friday.
Jeff Zients said his team of government and private technology experts continue to make progress in repairing HealthCare.gov, but an increased volume of users is exposing new and preexisting problems in system capacity and software.
In some cases, the system's response time for refreshing web pages remains unacceptably high. Too many people are still running into error messages or other problems that are being kicked up by buggy software, said Zients, who has been working for free since being appointed by President Obama in mid-October to fix the site.
Despite those problems, he repeated the prediction he made in October: That HealthCare.gov would be operating smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of November. That time-frame is crucial because Dec. 15 is the deadline for people to enroll in insurance plans that take effect Jan. 1.
Even as Zients reiterated that vow, there were growing calls on the government to provide some kind of relief to a trifecta of problems facing possibly millions of people: their insurance polices are being canceled because they are not compliant with Obamacare standards; the policies available for sale on HealthCare.gov are more expensive than their old plans; and HealthCare.gov doesn't work well enough to allow a large number of people to apply, shop and enroll in coverage in the first place.
(Read more: Cancer patient: I'm losing my insurance)
On Thursday, CNBC detailed how one Miami man had spent more than a month trying to create an account on HealthCare.gov and shop for coverage.
In an interview with NBC News' Chuck Todd on Thursday, Obama said, "We've got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and we are going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this."
"We're looking at a range of options," he said.
On Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at an appearance in Atlanta that "the president has asked to take a look at those coverage options." However, "there isn't any specific proposal on the table immediately," she said.
Some members of Congress have proposed extending the deadline to buy coverage without incurring a tax penalty beyond March 31, or allowing people to keep their existing insurance plans.
The Huffington Post on Thursday reported that the White House is also considering allowing people who currently aren't eligible for subsidies designed to offset the cost of the insurance to get those subsidies. Currently, anyone making more than 400 percent above the federal poverty line—which is equivalent of about $94,000 for a household of four—would not get those subsidies.
Drexel University professor Dr. Robert Field said of the Obama Administration, "I don't think they know yet" how to address the possibility of the website not being fixed soon.
"My sense is that they are in a panic mode, and they see moles popping up everywhere, and they can't whack them fast enough," said Field, the author of the new book "Mother of Invention: How the Government Created 'Free-Market' Health Care."
"I don't think that Nov. 30 promise is going to come to pass," Field said. "I don't think it's looking good for that...new problems keep popping up over time."
"You've got the issues of cancellation. You've got the issues of the [website] not working. And you've got the issue of sticker shock," he continued. "I don't know if there's a solution that fits all of them."
Field said he believes a partial solution would be a "crash hiring program" by the government to get more workers on the toll-free phone number, so people can call to sign up for Obamacare insurance.
"I would be using old technology to at least get the applications processed," he said.
Federal officials have not yet released enrollment data from HealthCare.gov, which is selling competitively priced insurance plans to residents of the 36 states that did not set up their own Obamacare marketplaces, also known as exchanges.
Sebelius' department has promised that data will be released for all 50 states and the District of Columbia next week, but she and other officials expect the enrollment to be low, because of both the sluggish Web site, and because of the fact that experts believe most people are not going to enroll in insurance until the very last minute.
Although HealthCare.gov has gotten the brunt of the awful publicity about the launch of the Obamacare exchanges, many states are also seeing low enrollment levels as well.
On Friday, senators Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Orin Hatch, R-Utah, said that the District of Columbia's own Obamacare exchange had enrolled just five people in October.
"With numbers like these, it's no wonder the Obama Administration hasn't wanted to release how many people have signed up for Obamacare," said the Utah Republican Hatch. "With data from D.C.'s four participating health plans in, there's been a whopping five people enrolled in the city's exchange. That's right, five. Whether it's significant problems with the website, people being forced off the coverage they had or skyrocketing costs, these numbers are even more proof of what a disaster Obamacare is and why it should be delayed."
But a D.C. exchange spokesman disputed the senators' claim.
"This is not an accurate depiction of the strong level of interest in the District of Columbia in obtaining quality, affordable health insurance," said spokesman Richard Sorian. "As of October 21, 12,294 D.C. residents had created personal accounts at DC Health Link, and 321 of those accounts had selected a health plan for enrollment."
"In addition, 426 small businesses had created accounts. Consumers have until Dec. 15 to finalize their selection by paying their first month's premium in order to have coverage on Jan. 1, 2014. Small businesses have until Dec. 12 to do the same. We are very pleased with the strong, enthusiastic response from the residents and small business owners in the District."
—By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter