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White House health care fixes come at crucial juncture

David Morgan and CNBC.com
Sunday, 1 Dec 2013 | 9:48 AM ET
A healthcare reform specialist helps people select insurance plans at the free Affordable Care Act (ACA) Enrollment Fair at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California.
Getty Images
A healthcare reform specialist helps people select insurance plans at the free Affordable Care Act (ACA) Enrollment Fair at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California.

Update: The White House progress report on changes to healthcare.gov., released Sunday.

"The bottom line, healthare.gov is night and day from where it was on Oct 1," said Jeff Zients, who is in charge of fixing the web site, on Sunday during a conference call with reporters.

According to Zients, more than 50 bug fixes installed just last night (Saturday), many of which made improvements to back end of the system.

Traffic this weekend: traffic has been significantly higher than typically weekend, system performing well, no need to deploy queuing system yet.

Substantial improvements to underlying hardware infrastructure… increased redundancy and reliability including 4 hardware changes.

1) Front end –registration data base – team has re-architected design, installed new dedicated hardware, more than quadrupled the throughput… in effect, "we've widened the system's on ramp. It now has 4 lanes instead of 1 or 2.

2) Core database: more servers and storage

3) Additional application environments more than doubling capacity

4) Upgrade to fire wall to protect system

Other report findings: Response time now under 1 second, from 8 seconds in October.

Error rates down from 6 percent to well under one percent. System up time for week ending October 2 was 49 percent, and about that through October 79 percent week of November 9. Consistently above 90 percent since then, and at 95 percent now.

Now have capacity for 50,000 users at a time, 800,000 per day. Increased capacity will likely NOT be sufficient for peak demand. Will deploy queuing system and email notifications to inform consumers when it's a better time.

Two months after Obamacare's disastrous launch, senior administration officials on Sunday will seek to showcase the repairs to the government's troubled website meant to sign up millions of people who need subsidized health insurance.

President Barack Obama's specially appointed adviser, Jeffrey Zients, is expected to describe the results of a five-week emergency effort aimed at making the federal HealthCare.gov website more accessible to users, more responsive and less prone to errors, according to officials.

"We will be providing an update on the progress made to date, so that the website works smoothly for the vast majority of users, including updated data on capacity, response time and error rate," said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the effort.

The administration's weekend deadline could mark a new chapter for Obama's signature domestic policy if HealthCare.gov has improved well enough to handle millions of potential applications for health coverage from the uninsured as well as others whose current insurance policies face cancellation at the end of the year.

But a repeat of the Oct 1. launch, when the site crashed as millions of visitors flooded in, could leave hundreds of thousands of people without coverage and deal a staggering political blow to the president's legacy and the 2014 election prospects of congressional Democrats.

(Read more: Health Care Site Rushing to Make Fixes by Sunday)

Basic account creation and log-in functions appeared to work smoothly on Saturday, the deadline set by Zients, but groups helping the sign-up effort described other errors in the process. Health insurance companies warned much work remained to allow seamless enrollment.

HealthCare.gov will face increasing pressure in the days and weeks to come, as consumers who want benefits in time for the new year have a Dec. 23 deadline to sign up. Republican lawmakers, due back in Washington from a holiday weekend, are prepared to seize on any new technical woes as they campaign to derail the law.

Zients is due to host a teleconference with reporters at 9 a.m. ET (1400 GMT), just hours after government contractors are expected to complete the latest batch of fixes. The administration's goal is to handle 50,000 users simultaneously, or about 800,000 visitors a day.

Administration officials say HealthCare.gov, which serves consumers in 36 states, will continue to be prone to outages and delays and predict that fixes will continue for months.

As late as midday on Saturday, officials were still describing 50,000 simultaneous users as a goal they were making progress toward and said upgrades overnight on Friday, followed by hardware and software fixes early on Sunday, would put the administration on track to achieve intended capacity.

(Read more: Obamacare: CNBC Explains)

The Obama administration had hoped to enroll about 7 million people in 2014 under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Many of those consumers are 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.

"There's still plenty of time to reach people who are now uninsured, and especially the young and healthy who are key to keeping the insurance market stable," said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But groups helping consumers navigate the site said some problems continued over the weekend that suggested deeper troubles.

(Read more: Insurers' Obamacare boon: More reinsurance payouts proposed)

In Pennsylvania, Ted Trevorrow works for a nonprofit group called Resources for Human Development. He tried to help a man on Saturday who 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."

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.

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.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washingtion and Sharon Begley in New York; Editing by Eric Walsh)

Getting more people to sign up

The Obama administration had hoped to enroll about 7 million people in 2014 under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Many of those consumers are 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.

"There's still plenty of time to reach people who are now uninsured, and especially the young and healthy who are key to keeping the insurance market stable," said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But groups helping consumers navigate the site said some problems continued over the weekend that suggested deeper troubles.

(Read more: Insurers' Obamacare boon: More reinsurance payouts proposed)

In Pennsylvania, Ted Trevorrow works for a nonprofit group called Resources for Human Development. He tried to help a man on Saturday who 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."

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.

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.

Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washingtion and Sharon Begley in New York; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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