Early glitches: fatal or fleeting?

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar / The Associated Press /


WASHINGTON — The glitch-ridden rollout of President Barack Obama’s health care law has opponents crowing: “Told you so!” and insisting it should be paused, if not scrapped.

But others, including insurance companies, say there’s still enough time to fix the online enrollment system before uninsured Americans start getting coverage on Jan. 1.

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. today for more upgrades and fixes.

Despite the confusion, the insurance industry has held off public criticism. Alarmed that only a trickle of customers got through initially, insurers now say enrollments are starting to come in and they expect things to improve.

The last major federal health care launch — the Medicare prescription program in 2006 — also had big startup problems. Government leaders who oversaw it say things could look very different in a couple of months for Obama’s law if the administration manages to get a grip on the situation.

“There wasn’t enough time for testing, so the dress rehearsal became opening night,” said Michael Leavitt, who as President George W. Bush’s top health official, was responsible for the Medicare drug plan debut.

“The moment of truth is going to come in the middle of November, when people want to see the real deal,” said Leavitt, who currently heads a consulting firm that advises states on the health overhaul. “If they don’t have this running smoothly by then, it’s going to be a bigger problem than we’re seeing today.”

The insurance industry is calling for patience. “This is a marathon and not a sprint,” Karen Ignagni, head of the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans, said in a statement. “We anticipate enrollments will continue to increase in the days and weeks ahead.”

Obama’s law — also known as the Affordable Care Act — was designed to provide insurance for people who don’t have access to coverage on the job. Middle-class uninsured people can buy a government-subsidized private plan, while the poor and near-poor will be steered to Medicaid in states that agree to expand the safety net program. The online insurance markets were envisioned as the 21st century portal to an overhauled system.

But when the health care markets went live last week, millions of curious Americans overwhelmed federal and state insurance websites. The level of interest could be read as a good sign, since polls just prior to the launch found most uninsured people unaware it was coming. Yet for many, the consumer experience was like a Saturday morning spent twiddling thumbs at the local motor vehicle department.

Some prospective customers got a screen that told them to wait — and nothing happened, for hours. Others started to sign up and got trapped by a recurring glitch when they tried to set up security questions to protect their personal accounts. Some who got through all the way to the end found their sessions had timed out, and they had to start over.

The federal website that serves 36 states wasn’t the only problem; several states also had a rough launch.

Software crash at high demand blamed for early system failures

The ongoing technical problems that have hampered enrollment in the online health insurance exchanges resulted from the failure of a major software component, designed by private contractors, that crashed under the weight of millions of users last week, federal officials said Monday.

Todd Park, President Barack Obama’s top technology adviser, said the failure occurred in the part of the website that lets people create user accounts at the beginning of the insurance sign-up process. The crash prevented many people from viewing any of their insurance options or accessing information on what federal subsidies might be available.

“At lower volumes, it would work fine,” Park said of the website, healthcare.gov. “At higher volumes, it has problems.”

“Right now,” he added, “we’ve got what we think we need. The contractors have sent reinforcements. They are working 24-7. We just wish there was more time in a day.”

In some cases, the website does not recognize users who established accounts before Oct. 1, when the online marketplaces where consumers can shop for insurance opened. Other users are prevented from establishing new accounts. Some who successfully established a marketplace account received an email asking them to verify their email address, but the link provided did not work.

The identification of the software component as the main cause of the website’s problems was the most detailed explanation that federal officials have given since the online marketplaces opened. The officials also rejected mounting criticism about the website’s overall design, saying that the rest of the site appears ready to handle the large volumes of traffic.

But because of the initial failures, other parts of the complex system have yet to be proven under the intense strain of real-world conditions. And outside experts said that White House officials should have spent more time tending to the computer code and technology of the website, rather than recruiting Hollywood celebrities to promote it.

“It’s poorly designed,” said Luke Chung, the president of a database company in Virginia who has publicly criticized the site in recent days. “People higher up are given the excuse that there are too many users. That’s a convenient excuse for the managers to pass up the chain.”

Those comments echoed similar criticism on sites across the Internet, where Web designers and developers speculated about the reasons for the ongoing problems at the website, healthcare.gov. One discussion on the popular website reddit.com was titled, “How not to optimize a website.”

White House officials declined to identify the private contractors who built the account creation function, citing a decision to keep that information private. They said the contractors had moved that part of the new system to beefed-up hardware and were busy rewriting the software code to make it more robust and efficient. In the past week, wait times have dropped by half, officials said.

Officials said that they had also added staff members at call centers to provide customers an alternative to the online system. The website currently says that people “in a hurry” can apply faster at a government call center using a toll-free telephone number, 800-318-2596. But an operator at the call center said Monday that he could not help because he, too, was “experiencing technical difficulties with the website.”

— New York Times News Service