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Health care website goal met, White House claims

| Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, 8:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Administration officials announced on Sunday that they met their Saturday deadline for improving, having completed a series of hardware upgrades and software fixes to the troubled website.

A progress report released by the Department of Health and Human Services said that “While we strive to innovate and improve our outreach and systems for reaching consumers, we believe we have met the goal of having a system that will work smoothly for the vast majority of users.”

Government and outside technical employees have worked around the clock for weeks on the fixes so the administration could keep its promise to have the site working smoothly for most people by Nov. 30.

The report served as the basis for a media briefing by Jeffrey Zients, the man President Obama tasked to oversee the fixes.

“The bottom line, on Dec. 1 is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1,” when the site went live, he told reporters.

Because of the improvements, the average system response time is under 1 second; the error rate is “consistently well below 1 percent”; the online system is stable — not crashing — more than 90 percent of the time; as many as 50,000 shoppers can use the site at the same time, or as many as 800,000 visits a day.

The report cautioned that more work needs to be done in the weeks and months ahead “to improve and enhance the website and continue to improve the consumer experience.” Officials have said repeatedly that consumers might still encounter difficulties and urged them to use the call center and seek help from specially trained personnel.

The report confirms that the administration has yet to meet at least one of its key goals: reducing the average response time of the site to half a second. And government officials, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss ongoing operations, cautioned last week that they will not know whether they've actually expanded the site's carrying capacity to 50,000 users at once until they have that many users online in the coming days.

The website was supposed to let consumers shop easily for health insurance, required by Obamacare, beginning on Oct. 1, but the continued technical problems of his signature domestic initiative have been a political disaster for Obama.

November 30 was not originally intended to be a key date for the online enrollment system, but it took on political and public importance when administration officials announced five weeks ago that the “vast majority of users” would be able to sign up for insurance through the site by that day.

Zients said that workers made more than 400 bug fixes and upgraded the software used for the enrollment process. The results are additional capacity, faster response time and much improved stability on the site, he said. About 50 fixes were made on Saturday night, Zients said.

Now the system is consistently up more than 90 percent of the time, Zients said. From October to the week ending Nov. 2, the online system was up and functioning only about 43 percent of the time, he said.

“We have a much more stable system that's reliably open for business,” he said. “ can now support intended volumes.”

Democratic lawmakers praised the improvements as their Republican counterparts expressed skepticism about the website and, more broadly, Obama's signature health care law, formally known as the Affordable Care Act.

“This is the equivalent of having a great item that you want to buy in the store but not being able to get through the front door,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said on CBS' “Face the Nation.” “It sounds like the front door has been opened successfully now.”

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said on the same program that he hopes “the efficacy of this is much better today and will improve.” But he added that he thinks Americans will encounter “a lot of negative surprises” as they enroll in plans offered on the health care exchanges.

A combination of federal employees, outside contractors and a handful of technical and management experts worked for five weeks to improve the website's performance as the White House endured fierce criticism from its political opponents and some consumers.

It could be hard, however, to independently assess how well the site has met the administration's goals of working smoothly for “the vast majority of users” until it experiences a real-time surge in high volume from consumers during peak demand.

Whether the upbeat assessment in the report and in the call with reporters is warranted will become clear once more Americans try to buy health insurance in coming weeks and months.

Even on Saturday, some applicants who tried enrolling hours after a key upgrade was supposed to have been completed said they were unable to complete the process.

“I only made it halfway through the second section,” said Liz Gallops, an insurance broker in Winston-Salem, N.C., who has tried several times to see the coverage options available for her family. “I entered my dependents, but the system continued to ask me who my dependents were and would only let me add new, not claim the ones I had already entered.”

Dec. 23 is the deadline to sign up for coverage effective on Jan. 1. In anticipation of high volume in the next three weeks, administration officials said they have set up a system to help consumers if they can't get access to the site during peak demand. If consumers visit the site when it is at capacity, they may leave an email address to receive notification from the site with a link that allows them to “go to the front of the queue when they come back to the site,” Zients said.

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