The recent crash of HealthCare.gov, the portal for Americans to access Obamacare’s health insurance marketplace, has further empowered opponents of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature legislative initiative.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are strengthening their calls for the law’s individual mandate to be postponed in light of the bumpy rollout of the website, which facilitates insurance marketplaces in 36 states, since its launch on Oct. 1.
“Over the last year, we have become all too familiar with the troubled rollout of the law with its broken promises, missed deadlines, delays, special waivers, and now website crashes,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in the weekly Republican address on Oct. 26.
“Despite hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars invested, the website still does not work for most. At a time when we can do everything from ordering a pizza, flowers, or airline tickets, or banking and paying bills, they expect the same reliable service from healthcare.gov – and it’s still not ready for primetime.”
Last week, Upton and other members of his committee, grilled four of the lead contractors responsible for Healthcare.gov about the problems with the glitch-prone website. And, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius underwent a similar interrogation on Oct. 30.
In his weekly address on Oct. 26, President Obama conceded that the website’s malfunctions were vexing—even as he mocked Republicans for their sudden concern with the site’s user-friendliness after years of trying to dismantle the ACA.
“The site isn’t working the way it’s supposed to yet,” he said. “That’s frustrating for all of us who have worked so hard to make sure everyone who needs it gets health care. And it’s especially frustrating for the Americans who’ve been trying to get covered.”
Still, he added, “The site has been visited more than 20 million times so far. [And] nearly 700,000 people have applied for coverage already. That proves just how much demand there is for these new quality, affordable health care choices. And that’s why, in the coming weeks, we are going to get it working as smoothly as it’s supposed to.”
According to health care officials, the marketplace’s breakdown over the weekend stemmed from a networking failure at Verizon Terremark, the company that operates the data center that hosts the HealthCare.gov website and the Data Services Hub.
That problem was resolved by Oct. 28. And, similarly, officials are continuing to push through a “punch list” of fixes to the website, with the expectation that it will be fully functional by the end of November.
“With our new management structure in place, our tech team is diagnosing problems and working with developers and vendors to analyze, troubleshoot, prioritize and resolve issues in real time,” said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which is administering the site, during a conference call with reporters on Oct. 28.
“This is a continuous process, so I anticipate that we will see incremental improvements week by week leading to November, when the vast majority of users will be able to more smoothly move through the enrollment system.”
For example, Bataille said, the team has implemented new tools to monitor the site, enabling them to better gauge what is happening with the Marketplace’s application and enrollment system.
“We are now better able to see how pages are responding, and measure how changes improve a user's experience on the site,” she said. “We’re also getting information on which parts of the application are causing the most errors–enabling us to prioritize what we fix next.”
Recent fixes included configuring components to increase site responsiveness, so, for example, when users want to view or filter health plans during the online shopping process, the pages respond in seconds, not minutes. Technicians have also resolved issues with the eligibility notices that display at the completion of the application process—some users were seeing a blank page.
The Obama administration has touted those continuing improvements, and has also promoted the other means of enrollment: Interested persons can enroll over the phone by calling 1-800-318-2596; or they can visit LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov to find out how to enroll by mail, or in person with the help of specially-trained personnel.
“Some people have poked fun at me this week for sounding like an insurance salesman. And that’s OK. I’d still be out there championing this law even if the website were perfect,” the president said of his efforts to promote the Marketplace. “I’ll never stop fighting to help more hardworking Americans know the economic security of health care. That’s something we should all want.”
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