White House still expects trouble for 20 percent of health website users

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Roughly 1 in 5 visitors to HealthCare.gov won’t be able to buy insurance coverage Nov. 30 when the bulk of repairs to the troubled website are supposed to be completed, the White House announced Monday.

According to presidential spokesman Jay Carney, these 20 percent of frustrated site users will fall into three categories: those who aren’t comfortable using computers, those who encounter technical problems on the site and those with complicated family situations that make it difficult to determine whether they qualify for subsidies to help pay for coverage.

The disclosure appears to confirm a weekend Washington Post report that said the Obama administration expects 80 percent, or 4 out of 5 website users, to be able to apply and enroll in health plans as of the end of the month.

The 80 percent figure offers the clearest indication yet as to how the administration will measure the success of users’ experiences on the website, which has been beset with problems since its ill-fated open enrollment launch Oct. 1.

For weeks, the administration has steadfastly made assurances that HealthCare.gov would be functioning properly for the “vast majority” of users by Nov. 30 but it was anybody’s guess what number that entailed, since administration officials were careful not to provide a target figure.

Carney ended that mystery Monday.

“Others can decide whether or not 80 percent is a vast majority,” he said during his daily White House news briefing. “I think, in most contexts, it is.”

As the gateway to the federal insurance marketplace that serves 36 states, Healthcare.gov currently handles 20,000 to 25,000 simultaneous users, largely without problems, officials say. The site, however, was envisioned to accommodate twice that many. But when user volume climbs too high, the system slows down and problems develop.

While more than 90 percent of users are able to open personal accounts on the site, as more of them move deeper into the system, more technical problems emerge, which creates a constantly changing “punch list” of high-priority repairs.

In recent weeks, the team of government and private-industry IT experts has rewritten software code, upgraded hardware and expanded the system’s capacity to handle more users. Over the weekend, the team knocked about 40 items off the punch list, said Julie Bataille, the communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We have a lot more work to do, but as this work demonstrates, HealthCare.gov is getting better and improving performance and user experiences each week,” Bataille said in a conference call with reporters.

One of the most important repairs remaining deals with the information pages that the system provides to insurers about coverage applicants. These so-called “834s” have been riddled with erroneous information and, despite weeks of repairs, they continue to spit out incorrect data.

“Those remain on our punch list with a few issues still to fix,” Bataille said.

On a positive note, the administration on Monday finished making email contact with the last of 275,000 website users who were unable to complete their insurance applications, she said. Now that the site is functioning better, the administration wants those users to try again.

Lesley Clark contributed to this article.

Email: tpugh@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @TonyPughDC

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