Six days into the launch of insurance marketplaces created by the new health-care law, the federal government acknowledged for the first time Sunday it needed to fix design and software problems that have kept customers from applying online for coverage. The Obama administration said last week that an unanticipated surge of Web traffic caused most of the problems and was a sign of high demand by people seeking to buy coverage under the new law.
But federal officials said Sunday the online marketplace needed design changes, as well as more server capacity to improve efficiency on the federally run exchange that serves 36 states. “We can do better and we are working around the clock to do so,” said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services. The government is making software and hardware changes to smooth the process of creating accounts needed to gain access to the marketplace, federal officials said.
The website is troubled by coding problems and flaws in the architecture of the system, according to insurance-industry advisers, technical experts and people close to the development of the marketplace. Among the technical problems thwarting consumers, according to some of those people, is the system to confirm the identities of enrollees. Troubles in the system are causing crashes as users try to create accounts, the first step before they can apply for coverage.
Experian EXPN.LN -0.43% PLC, an information-services firm, holds a federal subcontract to support that system. The company declined to comment. Information technology experts who examined the healthcare.gov website at the request of The Wall Street Journal said the site appeared to be built on a sloppy software foundation. Such a hastily constructed website may not have been able to withstand the online demand last week, they said. Engineers at Web-hosting company Media Temple Inc. found a glut of stray software code that served no purpose they could identify. They also said basic Web-efficiency techniques weren’t used, such as saving parts of the website that change infrequently so they can be loaded more quickly. Those factors clog the website’s plumbing, Media Temple said.
The identity-checking foul-ups are also triggering problems for state-run exchanges, which rely on the federal system. The problem caused delays last week for users of MNsure, Minnesota’s exchange, as they waited for federal confirmation to create their accounts, said April Todd-Malmlov, MNsure’s executive director. She said the issue in her state was largely resolved by Friday. Administration officials, who reported nearly nine million unique visitors to the federally run exchange as of Friday night, said the system underwent maintenance over the weekend.
The federal government is running all or part of the online marketplace for 36 states, while 14 states and the District of Columbia have their own systems. Those state-run systems have seen mixed performance. Such states as Connecticut and Kentucky have successfully enrolled customers, while Maryland had to take down its marketplace periodically last week to fix glitches. About 30 million uninsured people live in the states the federal marketplace will serve, including Texas and Florida. So far, Web-traffic problems are allowing only a small trickle of buyers, said John Gorman, chief executive of Gorman Health Group, an insurance-industry consulting firm with clients selling policies on the exchanges. Large insurers have seen enrollment figures totaling in the hundreds each, said Sumit Nijhawan, chief executive of Infogix Inc., a data-integrity firm that works with such insurers as WellPoint Inc., Aetna Inc. and Cigna Corp.
So far, many tens of thousands of people had started the application process but the number of those who were able to create accounts and shop for coverage is likely in the low thousands, according to people with knowledge of the situation and estimates by insurance-industry advisers. The administration has declined to say the total number of enrollees. President Barack Obama has urged patience since the exchange launched. Early last week, as the website opened for business, he said online traffic was higher than expected. “This gives you a sense of how important this is to millions of Americans across the country,” he said. Stephen Push, a 52-year-old early retiree living in McLean, Va., said he tried to log in to the website a dozen times last week, and was thwarted by website errors each time. On Friday, he called a hotline set up by the administration to help people enroll, but the customer-service representative was also unable to access the online marketplace.
On Sunday, Mr. Push said, he was able complete an application to begin shopping for insurance by telephone. But he said he was told he would have to wait two more days to log in and begin shopping for coverage, a delay the customer service representative attributed to the identity-checking system. “After what I’ve been through, I’m a little suspicious,” Mr. Push said, adding that he hoped to see premiums lower than what he pays now. Separately, a system that determines whether people are eligible for federal subsidies to buy insurance, or Medicaid, a state-run program for low-income people, continued to make some inaccurate determinations, despite improvements, people familiar with the matter said. By late last week, officials worried they may have to notify some applicants that they weren’t eligible for programs they enrolled in, one person said.
That system was developed by CGI Group Inc., GIB -0.39% the main contractor developing the federal exchange. CGI declined to comment. Another problem last week involved security questions that were asked of applicants, similar to those asked by e-commerce websites. Healthcare.gov asks users to select such questions as “What is your radio station?” and then supply answers. Initially, the questions didn’t always appear in drop-down tools, leaving many early customers stuck last week. After the problem was largely resolved, people said they were able to fill in the required information but the site still couldn’t process their application. The website and enrollment problems don’t “matter so much in October, but for the actual enrollment campaign, this all needs to get fixed by November or they won’t be able to process the volume they’re going to get,” said Jon Kingsdale, an exchange expert who helped set up a similar marketplace in Massachusetts in 2005 and who now works as a consultant for several state-run exchanges.
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