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VOL. 37 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 06, 2013

Obama's fixer-upper website races to catch up

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WASHINGTON (AP) — It looks like President Barack Obama's fickle health insurance website is finally starting to put up some respectable sign-up numbers, but its job only seems to have gotten harder.

Two months in and out of the repair shop have left significantly less time to fulfill the White House goal of enrolling 7 million people by the end of open enrollment on March 31.

Signups were just over 100,000 nationally as of the end of October. The 36 states served by the federal government's website accounted for a paltry one-fourth of that, fewer than 27,000 people. But officials now say an additional 29,000 people enrolled through the revamped HealthCare.gov in just two days at the start of this week, despite heavy volume that not long ago would have caused the system to lock up.

HealthCare.gov is the online portal to subsidized private health insurance for people who don't have job-based coverage. Though it's too early to say whether the corner is being turned, Obama is inviting consumers to give the website a second chance. Here's a look at the changes you can expect:

SPEED AND AVAILABILITY

Independent testers question the blazing Internet speeds claimed by techies at the Health and Human Services Department but say there's been noticeable progress.

"The trend is in the right direction ... but there are still things they can do to make the user experience better," said Michael Smith, a vice president of engineering at Compuware Corp., which helps companies monitor the technical performance of their websites.

As of Thursday morning, the number of states where consumers are experiencing unacceptably long wait times had been cut in half, down to 13 from 26 states in late October.

Compuware defines "unacceptable" as more than 8 seconds average response time to load the home page. The government claims a response time of less than 1 second. But Smith says that is likely being measured from computers with fast Internet connections and doesn't account for the experience of consumers with less than ideal access, which is incorporated in his company's testing.

HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters acknowledged: "As with any website, the response times for individual consumers will vary depending on their computer's performance and the speed of their Internet."

Compuware says availability — a measure of consumers' success accessing the site — is up to 98 percent, close to the standard for commercial websites.

WINDOW-SHOPPING

Many consumers were puzzled and frustrated when the federal website went live because it would not let them browse health plans without first setting up an account. That's the opposite of how e-commerce generally works. Most websites ask consumers to open an account after they're ready to purchase.

The flaw drove many people to an accounts creation page that turned out to be riddled with bugs and contributed to the system's early woes.

On Monday, HHS announced the deployment of a window-shopping function that lets prospective customers see plans and prices in their area, including previously unavailable details such as deductibles and cost-sharing, as well as provider networks.

RESET BUTTON

People who got stuck in the system can now zap away their old applications and start over.

To do that, you log into your account, select the application in progress and hit "remove."

You have to follow that by closing and reopening your web browser. Then you log back in and start a new application.

The reset process may not be entirely foolproof because HHS advises consumers to reach out to the call center at 1-800-318-2596 if they have trouble.

ORDERLY LINES

To help stave off problems during periods of high user volume, the website now has a queuing system. Consumers can request email notifications of when is a good time to come back. The feature kicked in this week as people flooded back to check out the revamped website.

The site can now handle 50,000 simultaneous users. Each visitor spends an average of 20 to 30 minutes on the site. In theory, the site will support more than 800,000 consumer visits a day.

The big spikes in traffic are still to come. Expect that to happen after the middle of this month, since Dec. 23 is the last day that people can apply for coverage that will take effect Jan. 1. Even heavier volume is likely toward the end of open enrollment March 31, as procrastinators jump in.

Confident that the site is stable, the government is emailing people who got stuck in the system and inviting them back.

Still, reaching the goal of 7 million sign-ups seems like a tall order. The government's initial projections estimated that 1.2 million people would have enrolled by the end of November, and the number is likely to be only a fraction of that.

And the March 31 deadline doesn't mean that enrollment comes to a full stop.

That's because under the law, people who experience a significant change in their life circumstances can still get coverage after the open enrollment period is over. Such changes include divorce, the birth of a child, loss of coverage, moving to another state or losing a job.

Rick Curtis of the nonprofit Institute for Health Policy Solutions estimates that as many as 20 million people could become eligible for coverage later in 2014, though it's not clear how many of those would enroll.

"About as many people will become eligible over the course of the year as are eligible now," Curtis said.

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