Problems persist on website to access Obamacare plans

Posted: 5:43 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7, 2013
By Laura Green – Palm Beach Post Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON —One week after its launch, the online site where Americans are supposed to be able to buy health insurance under Obamacare has met some extraordinary milestones:
Nearly 9 million visitors to the site, 225,000 requests for live chats and a skewering by “Saturday Night Live.”
“You can’t campaign on the fact that millions don’t have healthcare and then be surprised that millions don’t have healthcare,” quipped the newscaster during the SNL’s Weekend Update, a fake news broadcast. “How could you not be ready? That’s like 1-800-flowers getting caught off guard by Valentine’s Day.”The Obama administration warned weeks in advance that that were would be glitches in the rollout of the online enrollment tool. But it’s hard to find anyone who has managed to browse for insurance plans – let alone enroll in one.

Obama administration officials insisted in the initial days that the site was ready and “open for business.” Then late Friday, the Department of Health and Human announced it would perform “scheduled maintenance” and shutdown the online application during non-peak hours.

The maintenance reduced phone wait times from minutes to seconds and cut the online wait time in half, HHS said.
But Monday, the navigators whose entire job is to enroll people, still had trouble getting onto the site.
“It’s getting ridiculous. They’ve got to pull it down,” said John Foley, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County. His organization received funding for seven counselors to help people enroll. But they can’t get into the system to help search for a plan.

Legal Aid had clients ready to sign up on Oct. 1, the day of the launch. As a news camera rolled, Foley’s team tried to help a 50-year-old man get health insurance. They could not penetrate the website, and the man left after an hour.

Foley postponed appointments last week waiting for the site to improve. Monday, he had more clients, a couple in their 50s with no insurance. Foley tried to log in, but the site was “dead as a door nail,” he said.
He’s postponed this week’s clients, too. He fears people will be permanently turned off if they come in for an appointment and he can’t help them. He’s worried about those who have already tried and failed to buy insurance through the online marketplace.

“I’m hoping they do come back and they don’t give up,” he said.
U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park told USA Today that the government expected HealthCare.gov to draw 50,000 to 60,000 simultaneous users. Instead it had as many as 250,000 at a time since it launched.
“We’re obviously not satisfied with the performance,” Park told USA Today. “We’re working 24-7.”
The site’s technicians have added more servers and upgraded software, HHS said.

The admission that the government assumed there would be so little traffic is a stunning one given that there are nearly 48 million uninsured Americans. The Congressional Budget Office projected that 7 million Americans would enroll through the site in the first year.

On Friday, an Obama official said the site had more traffic in 72 hours than Southwest Airlines gets in a month.
There are problems beyond unexpected traffic, suspects Benjamin Caudill, a computer security expert who had worked on government contracts. He is the principal consultant at Rhino Security Labs.

“Just having that front end interface not work, not being able to log in and so forth indicates they are fixing bugs from a functionality standpoint,” he said.

On Monday many of the original problems persisted. It could take an hour to get past a waiting page set up to try to control traffic. Last week, the arrow on the dropdown menu appeared, but users couldn’t get access security questions needed to set up an account.

On Monday, the security questions seemed to be working. But there were other problems. The site sends an email confirming that a user has created an account. But when a user tries to input the username and password, the system sometimes rejects it.

Some bloggers have noted the sites that like Amazon manage to serve millions without crashing.
It’s hard to compare a retail site in which customers are placing items in a cart and paying online, with something as complex as the Obamacare site, said Paul Karch, president and CEO of Deerfield Beach based Gardant Global. Through selltogovernment.com, the company helps businesses secure government contracts.

“If you think about what’s occurring, they’re having to lead the consumer down a path to the answer the consumer is hoping to get based on answer the consumer is giving. They’re having to do logical determinations so that if you say yes to this, it leads you down to this path. If you say no to this, it leads you down this path,” Karch said.

For example, the site has to verify income. Then it calculates any subsidy the program has determined the consumer should get. For each plan the user researches, the computer has to do a different calculation to determine the price.
There are some consumers who are signing up. For them, the website has worked. But others are using old technology, including paper applications.

Another group of navigators in Palm Beach County is keeping appointments despite the technological hurdles. When the site doesn’t work, the navigators call and register a client for an account by phone. In a few days an email arrives with plan options. If the resident needs help winnowing down options, he can make another appointment to get a navigator’s help.

“They are not walking away unhappy,” said Jodi Ray, executive director of University of South Florida Florida Covering Kids & Families, which won the state’s largest grant to enroll Floridians.