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Problems continue to plague Obamacare site

| Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 2:18 p.m.

Pennsylvanians encountered problems for a second day on Wednesday on a federal website set up for the uninsured to sign up for health insurance coverage under Obamacare.

The website was overwhelmed by technical glitches and the volume of people trying to gain access when it opened for business on Tuesday. The site continued to be sluggish on Wednesday, and officials said they were working to improve its performance.

“We expect to see similar volume as yesterday, and while this overwhelming interest is continuing to cause wait times, there will be continuing improvements in the coming hours and days,” Fabien Levy, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, said in an email.

The site had 4.7 million unique visits in the first 24 hours, he said.

In some ways, the delays were good news for President Obama and supporters of his signature domestic policy achievement because the difficulties showed what appeared to be an exceptionally high level of interest in the overhauled insurance system. But if the glitches aren't fixed quickly, they could dampen enthusiasm for the law at a time when Republicans are using it as a rallying point to force most of the federal government to shut down.

Healthcare.gov is the federal government's website at which uninsured people in Pennsylvania and more than 30 other states can go to shop for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. It is run by the Health and Human Services Department.

The shopping function of the site went live on Tuesday, but larger-than-expected volume and technical glitches kept many people from accessing the site. A check of the site on Wednesday morning found a technical problem that prevented an account from being established.

Users were directed to a “holding page” for several minutes before an account-creation page loads. HHS officials said that was done to accommodate the large volume of users.

Open enrollment for health coverage, which is required by the law, started on Tuesday and continues through March 31.

Three months ago, the Government Accountability Office said a smooth and timely rollout could not be guaranteed because the online system was still getting finishing touches and had not been fully tested. The Obama administration shrugged off the evaluation.

The Obama administration hopes to sign up 7 million people during the first year and aims to eventually sign up at least half of the nearly 50 million Americans who are uninsured through an expansion of Medicaid or government-subsidized plans. Gov. Tom Corbett has joined some other Republican governors in rejecting Medicaid expansion, but he has proposed an alternative that would use the expansion money in Pennsylvania to buy insurance for the poor in the private market.

Many states predicted that an initial surge of interest would test the online system, but they expect most people to sign up closer to Dec. 15, the deadline for coverage to start Jan. 1. Customers have until the end of March to sign up to avoid tax penalties.

The bumpy debut has the hallmarks of a technology project that may have been rushed to meet the Oct. 1 deadline, said Bill Curtis, chief scientist at CAST, a software quality analysis firm, and director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality, which develops standards.

“When you are in a rush, you typically make a lot of mistakes and you don't have time to test them all out,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed. Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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