November 30, 2013

Health website may be out of intensive care on schedule

Administration officials expect to meet Saturday’s deadline for handling 50,000 users at once.

By Juliet Eilperin and Amy Goldstein
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Administration officials are preparing to announce Sunday that they have met their Saturday deadline for improving HealthCare.gov, according to government officials, in part by expanding the site’s ability to handle 50,000 users at once.

click image to enlarge

This photo of part of the HealthCare.gov website page featuring information about the SHOP Marketplace is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013 dministration officials are preparing to announce Sunday that they have met their Saturday deadline for improving HealthCare.gov, according to government officials, in part by expanding the site’s ability to handle 50,000 users at once.

AP Photo/Jon Elswick

However, they have yet to meet all their internal goals for repairing the federal health-care site, and it will not become clear how many consumers it can accommodate until more people try to use it.

As of Friday night, federal officials and contractors had achieved two goals, according to government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They had increased the system’s capacity and reduced errors, but the site’s pages do not load as fast as they want, officials said, and they are working to ensure large numbers of consumers can enter the site.

An official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency overseeing the federal health insurance exchange, said the site’s true capacity is somewhat murky because they need to see how it performs under “weekday traffic volumes” when demand is at its peak.

Federal employees and IT contractors were expected to work through the night Friday to try to reach one of the remaining targets: how many people per hour should be able to register and log onto the site. An earlier attempt to make the fix failed several days ago.

Nov. 30 was not originally intended to be a key date for the online enrollment system, but it took on outsized political and public importance when administration officials announced five weeks ago that the “vast majority of users” would be able to sign up for insurance through the site by that day.

A combination of federal employees, outside contractors and a handful of technical and management experts have worked for five weeks to improve the website’s performance as the White House has come under withering criticism from its political opponents and some consumers.

In an interview with Barbara Walters that aired on ABC on Friday night, President Barack Obama said he was confident that, in time, Americans would come to embrace his controversial health-care law.

“I continue to believe, and (I am) absolutely convinced, that at the end of the day, people are going to look back at the work we’ve done to make sure that in this country you don’t go bankrupt when you get sick, that families have that security,” Obama said. “That is going to be a legacy I am extraordinarily proud of.”

Administration officials have said for several weeks they define success as having “the vast majority of users” be able to navigate the site and sign up for insurance.

While they initially did not define what that meant, White House press secretary Jay Carney said earlier this month that the administration’s aim was to have 80 percent of users enroll through the site. Those working on the project have set speed and error rates as a way of measuring that goal.

A significant upgrade in the website’s capacity was carried out early this week, according to officials, which allowed HealthCare.gov to accommodate more people at once without causing the site to malfunction. For instance, many more consumers can simultaneously be on a section of the site designed to let people compare plans.

Even so, how much load the site can withstand depends on how much consumers are asking it to do. For example, simply looking around on the “learn” part of the site – where people can get basic information and a rough sense of prices – puts less strain on the system than the areas where people actually apply for coverage.

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