Obamacare: US healthcare site overhauled in rush to salvage policy – and reputation

Solving technical problems could be paramount to Democrats’ political fortunes

The task force charged with fixing the website that is meant to give Americans access to new insurance policies under Barack Obama’s huge healthcare overhaul – and arguably also with saving his imperilled legacy – claimed on Sunday that it had largely succeeded while acknowledging that some problems may persist.

Battered from all sides over the disastrous roll-out of the website on 1 October, the administration had set a deadline of midnight on Saturday to finish repairs that would allow the “vast majority” of visitors to buy new packages with minimum difficulty.  The message on Sunday was that for most part it had been met.

“The bottom line: HealthCare.gov on Dec. 1 is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1,” Jeffrey Zients, a top Obama aide who was drafted in to oversee the so-called “tech surge” to mend the site, declared. “We’ve widened the system’s on-ramp - it now has four lanes instead of one or two.  We have a much more stable system.”

While the scramble of the last several weeks has largely been about the technical challenges, it’s the giant political stakes that have consumed all of Washington and put President Obama and the Democrats on the defensive. The coming weeks will tell whether Mr Zients is right.  Any repeat of the debacle of early October could be catastrophic for the White House and Obama.

Fourteen states, including New York and California built their own portals for consumers to shop for coverage.  In general, those have proved far more reliable.  But residents of the 36 other states have to rely on healthcare.gov to buy coverage in advance of a 23 December for policies that will come into effect on 1 January 2014.  Under the terms of Obamacare, all Americans must be covered before 31 March next year or face a penalty.

Deeply anxious about how the botched roll-out might affect their party’s chances in next year’s mid-term congressional elections some Democrats on Capitol Hill have been urging the White House to consider pushing that March deadline back.  That pressure may now ease if the website starts performing as it was meant to.

The storm intensified when it became clear that millions of Americans were receiving letters from insurance companies suspending their existing policies and requiring them to shop for new ones, directly contradicting a promise Mr Obama had made over and over that everyone who had policies they liked would be able to keep them.  As critics accused him both of incompetence and of having misled the American people, Mr Obama was forced to amend the law to allow consumers to keep cancelled policies for one more year.

All the while, the rush was on in a heavily guarded facility in suburban Maryland, near Washington DC, to address the roughly 600 system errors and bottlenecks that had made the website so dysfunctional.   Those crammed into what became known as the Obamacare ‘War Room’ included top computer engineers drafted in from companies like Google and Oracle.  Getting it done by this weekend was politically paramount, especially for Mr Obama.

“If we don’t do that,” one senior White House adviser recalled in an interview with the New York Times, “it’s a very serious threat to the success of the legislation and a very serious threat to him. We get that.”   Mr Obama’s poll numbers have been dropping precipitously in the weeks since the Obamacare debacle became apparent.

In a six-page report, the administration said that the improvements should allow 50,000 people to visit the site at once and 800,000 people could visit it on a single day. The frozen pages and error messages should be gone and the time for downloading a page cut from eight seconds to just one. However, issues reaming including in getting the information entered by users relayed to the insurance companies themselves.

“There is more work to be done to continue to improve and enhance the website and continue to improve the consumer experience in the weeks and months ahead,” the Department of Health and Human Services said. In October roughly 106,000 people enrolled for coverage, compared to a first-month goal of 500,000.

After going all out to draw blood from Mr Obama over the issue, Republicans on Sunday seemed unwilling fully to buy the tidings of Mr Zients.  “Have they made some progress? Yes. They brought in some private sector folks to try to get the functionality up. It still doesn't function right,” Congressman Mike Rogers of Michigan told NBC.

Nor, for their part, were Democrats ready to declare the crisis over. “This is going to take some time before it’s up and kicking and in full gear, Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen said on the same programme.  He was non-committal meanwhile on whether there was still a need to extend the end-of-March deadline for signing up and he and other Democrats had previously advocated. “As of today, no ... let’s see how this is working.”

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