* Tech adviser cites dramatic improvement since Oct. 1
* Says site can handle 50,000 simultaneous users
* Experts say major challenges remain
By David Morgan and Lewis Krauskopf
Dec 1 Two months after the disastrous launch of
a website that is a key component of President Barack Obama's
healthcare law, administration officials said on Sunday they had
met their goal of getting the HealthCare.gov site running
smoothly but warned that it needs more fixes.
Obama adviser Jeffrey Zients said a five-week emergency
"tech surge" had doubled the capacity of the online health
insurance portal that is crucial to helping millions of people
shop for insurance plans, while making it more responsive and
less prone to errors.
The administration said the effort's key improvement was to
increase HealthCare.gov's capacity to 50,000 simultaneous users,
which would allow the site to handle at least 800,000 users per
But Zients also warned that peak traffic volumes during the
coming weeks could eclipse the new capacity as consumers rush to
sign up before a Dec. 23 deadline for coverage that begins Jan.
1. That could delay some people from completing online
applications for subsidized health coverage.
Officials also acknowledged that the site may not operate
smoothly for some visitors when traffic volumes are within its
capabilities and said they were scrambling to repair and install
functions at the crucial "back end" of the system that are
needed to finalize enrollments with insurers.
Even so, officials said, the site is dramatically better
than when it was launched on Oct. 1. It was overwhelmed by users
in a debacle that embarrassed Obama, fueled Republicans'
complaints about the Democratic president's healthcare overhaul,
and threatened to make his signature domestic achievement a drag
on Democrats heading into the 2014 elections, when control of
Congress will be up for grabs.
"The bottom line: HealthCare.gov on Dec. 1 is night and day
from where it was on Oct. 1," Zients told reporters a day after
the administration's self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline for making
the website operate properly for the "vast majority" of users.
"We've widened the system's on-ramp - it now has four lanes
instead of one or two," he said. "We have a much more stable
system that is reliably open for business."
STRIKING A BALANCE
The Zients team's success could mark a more upbeat chapter
for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known
as Obamacare, which was designed to help provide coverage to
millions of uninsured and under-insured Americans.
Now the administration must promote benefits of enrollment
without driving online traffic to levels that could jeopardize
the site, reform advocates say.
The White House said it will sponsor events this month to
educate the public, and on Wednesday will host a youth summit
for young leaders from across the country to learn about
benefits and the need to get the word out to their peers.
"We aren't planning any major promotions to specifically
drive traffic over the next few days, because we expect that it
won't be necessary. But whether or not we need to take steps to
drive traffic is something we will be continually evaluating. So
if traffic drops off, we will take steps to drive it," a senior
administration official said.
If HealthCare.gov remains stable enough to handle millions
of applications for insurance and for government subsidies to
help lower income people pay for coverage, it will help tamp
down a major crisis of Obama's administration.
But an improved website won't solve all of Obamacare's
problems. There are many questions on whether the program will
be able to enroll the estimated 7 million people it needs by the
end of March, including millions of healthy, young enrollees who
are needed to keep the program's costs in check.
"The issue is really the management capacity of the Obama
administration," said Robert Blendon, a Harvard expert on
healthcare and public opinion. "If the website really is still
working a week from now, it'll make people feel at least they
have the capacity to turn things around and move ahead."
But a repeat of problems that plagued the site's launch
could leave hundreds of thousands of people without coverage and
deal a staggering blow to Obama's legacy and the 2014 election
prospects of congressional Democrats, already on the defensive
over the program's recent problems.
Republicans, who view the 2010 law as an unacceptable
expansion of government that will limit healthcare choices and
kill jobs, were quick on Sunday to say the administration
overstated gains on the website.
"Have they made some progress? Yes. They brought in some
private-sector folks to try to get the functionality up,"
Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan said on NBC's "Meet the
Press." But, he said, "It still doesn't function right."
Democrats were cautious. Some have called for a delay of the
"individual mandate," which requires most Americans to be
enrolled in coverage by March 31 or pay a penalty.
"This is going to take some time before it's up and kicking
and in full gear," Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland
Democrat, said on "Meet the Press." Asked whether the individual
mandate still needs to be delayed, Van Hollen replied: "As of
today, no ... let's see how this is working."
Anecdotal evidence suggested few problems with the website
as of midday Sunday. Amanda Wood, 25, a uninsured New Jersey
resident, said she had avoided using the website because of
technical snafus but tried it just before Thanksgiving after a
friend told her she hadn't encountered problems. Wood, a retail
sales associate said the site was "surprisingly easy" given "all
those negative things" she had heard.
"I went on and it didn't really give me problems," said
Wood, who said she created an account and shopped "a little bit,
but I wasn't 100 percent sure what I wanted to pick yet."
Zients, who is slated to leave his HealthCare.gov post and
become director of Obama's National Economic Council on Jan. 1,
attributed his team's success to a new management structure that
he said replaced inadequate oversight and coordination, slow
decision-making and a lack of centralized accountability.
His team, beefed up by specialists from high-profile tech
companies including Google Inc and Oracle Corp
, eliminated hundreds of software bugs and hardware that
had kept the site down for about 60 percent of October. The
site's uptime is now above 95 percent, officials said. But
HealthCare.gov, which serves consumers in 36 states, will face
increasing pressure from consumers ahead of the Dec. 23 deadline
to enroll for January benefits.
Craig Garthwaite, a health economist at Northwestern
University's Kellogg School of Management, said Sunday's
announcement represented "dramatic progress," but that the fixes
mainly brought the website to "the baseline of what we need the
site to be able to do."
Other analysts also cautioned that while the consumer
experience was improved, the administration has not resolved
problems at the back end of HealthCare.gov's technology system,
where it interfaces with insurers.
"The real challenges remain, and that's downstream," said
Rick Howard, research director for the technology consultant
Gartner. "The real error rate will be in the billing
transactions and how accurate the billing information is and how
accurate the premium calculation is."
Officials are working to correct errors in the consumer
enrollment data sent to insurers and have not built in several
necessary functions, including one that will enable the
government to pay federal subsidies to insurers on behalf of
low-income enrollees. Without those functions working properly,
HealthCare.gov and websites for 14 state-run marketplaces could
have difficulty operating in 2014.