Obama administration admits problems with Affordable Care Act website from design, software
By Alex Nixon
Published: Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, 11:45 p.m.
Ted Couperus thought he was one step from enrolling his wife for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act on Monday when the federal government's website for buying coverage accepted her information and sent him a link to confirm their email address. He was wrong.
“I clicked on the link, and it said, ‘Oops. Try again,' ” said Couperus, 68, of Gibsonia. “The thing is still broken. You can't get in.”
Despite a maintenance shutdown over the weekend that was supposed to improve Healthcare.gov, technical problems continue to hamper the website — a key part of President Obama's health care overhaul — where millions of people have gone to buy insurance, apparently with limited success, since it opened for business Oct. 1.
Consumers have been stymied in their attempts to enroll for coverage. They were hung up on web pages that were loading slowly or were unable to get past the step where they had to answer security questions to establish an account, with the site displaying an error message.
The Health and Human Services Department, which is in charge of the website and the rollout of the health care law, initially blamed the site's woes on the surge of web traffic. The department said it added servers to handle more traffic and partially shut down the site for maintenance during the weekend to bolster its performance.
But over the weekend, officials were forced to admit that problems went beyond an overwhelming response from the nation's millions of uninsured people. The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that the Obama administration owned up to a need for design and software problems to be fixed.
The newspaper reported Healthcare.gov is troubled by coding problems and flaws in the architecture of the system, citing insurance industry advisers, technical experts and people close to the development of the marketplace.
Government officials continued to put a positive face on the problems while ducking questions about the number of people who have enrolled or about the technical problems that they are encountering beyond high demand from consumers that overwhelmed the site.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday said that enrollment data wouldn't be released on an “hourly or daily or weekly basis,” although outside experts said the administration is certain to have those numbers, according to the Associated Press. Officials regularly report the number of unique visitors to the website — nearly 9 million as of Friday — but they don't say how many get to the end of the application.
“Our work to expand the site's capacity has led to more people successfully applying for and enrolling in affordable health coverage online, with wait times being shortened by approximately 50 percent since Friday,” HHS spokesman Fabien Levy said in an email. “But we won't stop until the doors to HealthCare.gov are wide open and, at the end of the six-month open enrollment, millions of Americans gain affordable coverage.”
Uninsured people in Pennsylvania and 35 other states are supposed to be able to buy subsidized health plans through the site.
A separate problem with the federal marketplace has cropped up: The government's system can't connect with Pennsylvania's Medicaid system and likely won't be able to until Nov. 1, said Carey Miller, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Public Welfare. All 36 states where HHS is running the online marketplace are experiencing the same problem, she said.
“We are encouraging individuals who believe they are eligible for Medicaid to apply through COMPASS or their county assistance office,” Miller said. COMPASS, or Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Access to Social Services, is a state-run website for residents to apply for a range of services.
The federal-state connection is necessary to determine whether people who are signing up for coverage through Healthcare.gov qualify for Medicaid coverage instead of a subsidized private health plan.
In Pennsylvania, this isn't likely to affect many people because Gov. Tom Corbett has so far declined to expand the program to more people, as called for under Obamacare.
But in other states, such as New Jersey, the issue could cause problems for thousands of low-income workers who won't know if they qualify for the federal government's health insurance program for the poor.
Emma Sandoe, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said in an email that HHS and state systems “are ready for individuals to apply for and receive eligibility determinations for expanded Medicaid coverage” because there will be enough time between Nov. 1 and Jan. 1.
Uninsured people will have until March 31 to sign up for coverage for 2014. To have coverage begin on Jan. 1, people must sign up with a health plan by Dec. 15.
Couperus said that he'd been trying to create an account on the website since last week to shop for coverage for his wife, who's 64 and does not yet qualify for Medicare. On Monday, he tried again and thought he was finally in.
“All that was fine,” he said. “But there was another step I didn't know about.”
Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or email@example.com.
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