October 8, 2013

Health care website still having glitches

After emergency repairs over the weekend, consumers in different parts of the country continue to report delays.

The Associated Press

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This photo provided by HHS shows the main landing web page for HealthCare.gov. After emergency repairs over the weekend, consumers in different parts of the country Monday continued to report delays on healthcare.gov, as well as problems setting up security questions for their accounts. The administration says the site's crowded electronic "waiting room" is thinning out. Still, officials announced it will be down again for a few hours starting at 1 a.m. Tuesday for more upgrades and fixes. (AP Photo/HHS)

Technology experts say the problems are probably due to a combination of factors: unexpectedly high demand, as well as possible software flaws and shortcomings in design. Sometimes a high volume of users can expose software problems that went undetected in testing, they said.

The administration has mainly blamed high volume. The Health and Human Services department says it is adding servers —workhorse computer equipment — to the system to handle the volume of user requests.

Official media releases have hinted at software and system design problems, without providing detail. For example, one referred to procuring "dedicated hardware" for an unnamed "specific component of the system that became over-stressed."

Problems caused by website overload should ease as more equipment is added. Software and design flaws are trickier to fix, meaning more overnight repairs.

Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said officials would not release enrollment data on an "hourly or daily or weekly basis," although outside experts say the administration is certain to have those numbers. Officials regularly report the number of unique visitors to healthcare.gov — they just don't say how many get to the end of the application. Those numbers will be released at "regular monthly intervals," Carney said.

Mark McClellan, who ran Medicare during the bumpy prescription program rollout in 2006, said during that time he had detailed daily tracking stats, and he's sure the Obama administration must have at least the same level of information.

"I would think they have a good handle not only on enrollment, but on each step of the process where the drop-offs are occurring," McClellan said. "If you aren't tracking those kinds of performance metrics for the system in close to real time, it's awfully hard to figure what's wrong in order to fix it."

Now a health policy expert with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, McClellan says the message for consumers is, "take a deep breath. If you are interested in this program, you do not need to make a decision this week, or even this month. You should make a decision by November. Given the issues a lot of people are having, that's probably a good reason to wait."

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