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UPDATE 3-Obamacare website enters critical phase, unclear if fixes are enough

Sharon Begley and Roberta Rampton
Saturday, 30 Nov 2013 | 6:58 PM ET

Nov 30 (Reuters) - The rollout of President Barack Obama's healthcare law entered a critical phase on Saturday, the deadline for substantially fixing the program's troubled enrollment website, as the administration scrambled to address the most obvious glitches.

The White House, facing mounting pressure from Republican opponents and members of Obama's Democratic party, promised five weeks ago that by Nov. 30 it would repair HealthCare.gov. The site was designed to help people sign up for medical coverage but has been plagued by errors, outages, and slow speeds since a disastrous Oct. 1 launch.

Basic account creation and log-in functions appeared to work smoothly on Saturday, but groups helping the sign-up effort described other errors in the process. The site's ability to handle target traffic loads of 50,000 users or more at the same time will be tested in the coming days. A website shutdown to accommodate new fixes was set for early Sunday.

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. If the site does not work smoothly for the "vast majority of users" in the next three weeks as promised, it could jeopardize access for hundreds of thousands of potential applicants in time for Jan. 1.

Health insurance companies, whose plans in 36 states are featured on HealthCare.gov, said significant problems remain, particularly in the "back end" where enrollment is confirmed and payment is made.

"Until the enrollment process is working from end-to-end, many consumers will not be able to enroll in coverage," said Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, a lobby group.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency responsible for the website, said it was performing well on Saturday "despite heavier than usual weekend traffic," although it did not release any data.

New hardware upgrades and software fixes are slated for 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. ET (0600-1100 GMT) on Sunday, and follow an unusually long 11-hour shutdown overnight on Friday.

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. ET (1400 GMT) on Sunday.

LOOMING DEADLINES

The Obama administration had hoped to enroll about 7 million people in 2014 under the new law, with many of those consumers expected to qualify for subsidies.

To work, the program must get millions of young, healthy consumers to sign up by March 31. Their participation is key to keeping the program's costs in check. But an initial deadline of Dec. 23 already looms for people who want benefits to start with the New Year.

"The priority between now and the end of the year is to make sure that people who have had their policies canceled can get into a new plan and avoid any kind of gap in coverage," said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In Pennsylvania, Ted Trevorrow described errors that he said show problems deep inside HealthCare.gov.

Trevorrow, who works for a nonprofit group called Resources for Human Development, tried to help a man on Saturday who has created two applications because of technical snafus - one by phone, and one online - and cannot access either of them.

"He ran into some sort of technical glitch, and now it will require the intervention of a programmer," Trevorrow said.

Another client hit an inexplicable wall in the subsidy eligibility process. "The system just stopped and wouldn't go any further," said Trevorrow. "It just plain doesn't work and it needs to be fixed."

With Republican lawmakers busy in their districts on the holiday weekend, political reaction on Saturday was muted. But that is expected to change after the holiday when they return to Washington and as more Americans check out the website.

Republicans have argued that Obamacare is fatally flawed and should be scrapped, and have brandished stories of Americans who are unhappy with losing old health plans or seeing higher costs for new ones.

"Americans are far less concerned about a website than they are about the availability and affordability of their health care," said Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate, in a statement.

Another website meltdown 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.

HARD TO VERIFY

The administration said on Saturday that 90 percent of website users can now create an account on the system - a statistic that some information technology experts said sounded rosy but was impossible to verify.

"It prevents anyone from the outside from contradicting them," said Jonathan Wu, co-founder of the consumer financial website ValuePenguin.

There is little insight on how well the website works when it verifies identities and calculates subsidies for those whose income falls below 400 percent of the poverty level.

Navigator groups - those tasked with helping people sign up for new medical benefits - said they saw only 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, said Rachel Udow, who oversees the program.

"That was a barrier to paying the first month's premium," she said.

Officials have been careful in recent weeks to say that the overhauled HealthCare.gov won't work for everyone. They expect that 20 percent of people will apply by phone, mail or in person because they need extra help or face technical errors.

The 14 states that have their own websites, many of which have performed better, may also struggle with a surge in demand ahead of the December sign-up deadline. The Washington Health Benefit Exchange, one of the most successful marketplaces, experienced unexpected problems during an upgrade overnight on Friday, shutting down its system until some time on Sunday.

Maryland Health Connection, which had early struggles with technical problems, also said it would be down for scheduled maintenance from late Saturday night until Monday morning.