HealthCare.gov: Please Stand By…We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

HealthCare.gov, the online marketplace for enrolling in the health insurance exchanges implemented by the 2010 PPACA, has left the Obama administration with egg on its face after sputtering to life on October 1, 2013. A series of technical glitches has brought unwanted attention to an already beleaguered initiative and has precipitated calls for the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (USA Today).

In the first five days of operation, 9.5 million unique users visited HealthCare.gov to shop for insurance. Only 36,000 completed the enrollment process (The Hill). This high rate of failure discouraged potential users and traffic on the site dwindled.

The administration has at least been able to blame last weekend’s hiccup on Verizon, the operator of the federal data hub responsible for running the enrollment website (Politico). The hub failed on Sunday, blocking any potential enrollees in the federal exchange and those of 14 states and D.C., but returned to service on Monday morning (Reuters).

This, one of the latest in a string of technological embarrassments, came after a Friday announcement that the administration indicated it does not expect to fully resolve glitches until the end of November (Washington Post). The same announcement revealed that management of HealthCare.gov had been ceded to a private contractor, Quality Software Services Inc. (QSSI), based in Columbia, MD.

Numerous errors have prevented most would-be shoppers in the online marketplace from completing their enrollment. The administration has blamed overloading of the web portal, yet contractors involved in development of the site point to insufficient testing of the site prior to launch (AP).

Firms such as QSSI and CGI Federal also expressed bewilderment that the administration directed designers to prevent HealthCare.gov users from shopping anonymously. This means that, while users of most e-commerce sites are able to shop online and set up accounts only at check out, HealthCare.gov shoppers must create accounts before even viewing available rates. HHS indicated that users are only able to see if they are eligible for tax credits once signed up and thus shopping without an account, or “window shopping,” would prevent users from properly evaluating rates (McClatchey). The outcome was greater site traffic and overloaded servers. Limited window shopping is now available.

The Obama administration has yet to reveal any enrollment figures, though states operating their own exchanges, such as Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, and Washington have been forthcoming with enrollment data (ProPublica). Some analysts suspect the administration is embarrassed by modest numbers and is waiting until those improve to publish results. Obama has made no secret of his goals for the exchanges program and is undoubtedly underwhelmed by current progress towards those targets.

For a number of reasons, compiling enrollment statistics is difficult. For example, enrollment for a user is only technically complete once the first month of insurance has been paid for (Atlantic Wire). In the first two weeks of operation for the 14 state-run health care exchanges, CNN discovered that 20,994 users had signed up and paid and another 96,980 had signed up but not yet paid (CNN).

Sebelius faced questioning from the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, though her post seems secure for the moment (CNN). She admitted frustration and stated more than once: “I am responsible for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act” (Wall Street Journal). President Obama has expressed support for the under-fire Secretary as well as confidence the problems will be resolved (Politico). Nevertheless, HealthCare.gov crashed during Sebelius’ Congressional testimony (The Hill).

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