A month after the start of Obamacare enrollment, the website Americans will use to enroll is still plagued by technical problems. The botched launch and other revelations about the way the controversial health care launch is unfolding have led to another kind of problem – a political one for President Barack Obama.
So what went wrong?
First are the technical problems. They became obvious within hours of the launch of the Obamacare enrollment. For the source of problems, it looks like there’s lots of blame to go around. Contractors missed some deadlines. The government agency responsible for the website, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, decided to manage 55 contractors instead of hiring out the job.
The agency has since hired a contractor to take on that role, admitting essentially that it was in over its head.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the technical problems:
Is it true that the website wasn’t tested before the launch?
The work of individual contractors was tested and appeared to be working well. But there was no complete system test until two weeks before the launch. Once it was tested end-to-end, only a few hundred users crashed the system. Some corrections were made due to the testing. But contractors have said such testing usually takes months and not a few weeks.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius acknowledged there was “clearly not” enough testing, during questioning this week by a Congressional oversight committee.
What exactly has gone wrong with the website?
The first problems were due volume. The site had been designed to handle only tens of thousands of users at once, which seems obviously too few. Within hours of the launch, one million people tried to use the site. The Obama administration attributed the site’s problems to volume. But it quickly became clear, once more capacity was added, that the volume had masked far bigger problems.
Among those problems have been blank pages, a drop-down menu on the account creation page that wouldn’t pull down, not enough servers and on and on. On Friday, officials said it had been taking eight seconds for a single page to load, when the industry standard is milliseconds. As of Friday, pages are loading in about 1,000 milliseconds.
Beyond the mistakes of contractors have been problems out of the control of CMS or the team working on the site. For example, Verizon has experienced several outages, bringing down healthcare.gov – and other sites — for reason that have nothing to do with its architecture or programming.
Why doesn’t the government fire the contractors who made mistakes?
One of the contractors that has been blamed for missing deadlines is CGI, one of the primary companies on the project. At this point, it seems fair to expect that bringing a new company on board, particularly in such an important role, would take even more time and require a substantial amount of learning on-the-job.
What about all these other avenues that we are told we can use to sign up. Are they working?
People who are frustrated by the website can get help. There is one-on-one assistance in person and help enrolling over the phone. But both the phone operators and the in-person navigators are using the same website that is causing consumers problems. People can also submit a paper application. That ultimately requires another contractor to key in the application to the same glitchy website.
John Foley of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach was trained to help people enroll, but he could not get through the website in the early days of the launch. “It’s frustrating,” he said.
“I’m going to scream,” he said, if he had to look one more time at the page telling him he had to wait to use the website.
When will the website be fixed?
CMS has committed “the site will work smoothly for the vast majority of users” by the end of November. The agency is now holding daily briefings to update the media on all the things that are being fixed day-to-day on the government “punch list.” The list for each week contains “dozens” of fixes, reporters were told this week. Sebelius told a Congressional committee that it will take until the last day of November for everything to be working properly.
Then there are the political problems.
President Obama’s approval rating is taking a beating amid daily reports of the website meltdown. But other revelations are also costing him. Insurance companies have begun sending notices to their customers that their policies were being canceled. In Florida, some 400,000 customers got a notice. Of those, 300,000 are customers of Florida Blue. And while Obama administration officials insist people are gaining high quality and low-cost insurance, they refuse to release numbers to back up those claims.
Here are answers to some questions about political problems:
President Obama had promised American over and over “’if you like your health plan, you can keep it.” Is he telling the truth?
That depends on whether you define the promise as applying to every American or just most people. For 95 percent of Americans with insurance, the president was correct. They get their insurance through their employers and nothing has to change for them.
Another 5 percent of insured Americans – about 12 million people – buy their insurance policy on their own, through the individual market. The Affordable Care Act included an escape hatch for existing policies. Policies that were active when the law took effect were “grandfathered,” meaning they do not have to meet the new minimum benefit requirements. Millions of Americans were supposed to be protected from having their policies taken away due to this grandfathering.
So why are so many people receiving cancellation notices?
Insurance companies were allowed to keep selling the same product as long as they didn’t make significant enough changes to it to create what is essentially a new product. In that case, the policies would have to meet the new requirements.
So when insurers sent out the letters, blaming the health care law, what they didn’t tell their clients was that it was the insurance company that decided to drop its grandfather status.
Insurance companies are upgrading their plans to comply with law, some believe, because their old products did not cover much and might have had trouble competing with the new plans now being sold. Others see a more suspect motive: the new policies cover more and are, therefore, often more costly. That means more money for the insurance company.
Many Americans who are forced to switch policies will end up finding a policy that does not cost them much more because the federal government is providing financial assistance to pay for policies.