By Karen Pallarito
SUNDAY, Dec. 1, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- The race to repair the U.S. government's troubled health insurance website by Nov. 30 has yielded a number of important fixes, but health officials on Sunday acknowledged that more work is needed to improve consumers' experience with the online marketplace.
"As we've said, with any web project there is not a magic moment but a process of continual improvement over time, and we will continue to work to make enhancements in the days, weeks and months ahead," said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency responsible for operating HealthCare.gov.
Still, federal health officials declared the site much improved, ticking off a list of repairs and enhancements that have been made to the site, even as late as last night.
"The bottom line: HealthCare.gov on December 1st is night and day from where it was on October 1st," Jeff Zients, an adviser to the Obama administration's top health officials, said in a rare Sunday news conference. He said that more than 400 "bugs" to the system have been fixed since work began in October, with the pace of fixes accelerating over time.
Zients, a management expert tapped to oversee the so-called "tech surge" needed to repair the hobbled website, will leave in January to become director of the National Economic Council.
As the gateway for millions of uninsured Americans in 36 states to enroll in a health plan, HealthCare.gov plays a crucial role in the ultimate success or failure of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's crowning domestic policy achievement.
Following the website's calamitous launch on Oct. 1, the administration conducted an assessment of the site to identify problems and needed fixes.
For "some weeks" in October, the site was down an estimated 60 percent of the time, the government acknowledged in a progress report issued Sunday.
A general contractor was appointed to coordinate the effort to overhaul the site. And a team of information technology experts has been working around the clock on a "punch list" of repairs, from boosting system capacity and debugging the system to improving users experience with the site.
The government says these efforts have resulted is significant improvements:
- System speed has increased dramatically, with average response times of less than one second, down from more than eight seconds in late October.
- Error rates, on average, have tumbled from more than 6 percent to three-quarters of 1 percent.
- The system is now available more than 90 percent of the time, versus 42.9 percent in early November.
- The site can now support 50,000 simultaneous users -- up from 25,000 just days ago -- and can accommodate more than 800,000 users per day.
Even with these enhancements, there will be times "when spikes in user volume outstrip the system's capacity," Zients said. A new system will be deployed to allow consumers to request e-mail notification of better times to use the site, he said.
The Obama administration has been under fire in recent weeks as consumers seeking health insurance through the federal health marketplace have encountered numerous snags. A raft of error messages, timed-out web pages and slow response times gummed up the process and, many times, the site was inoperable.
Under the Affordable Care Act, most Americans must have health insurance in place by Jan. 1, 2014, or pay federal tax penalties.
Consumers seeking to purchase private health insurance through the federal health exchange must do so by Dec. 23 if they want that coverage to kick in on Jan. 1.
In the week leading up to the government's self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline for making the site work "smoothly" for the "vast majority" of users, the Obama administration conceded that the system would not operate perfectly on Dec. 1.
"It is likely as we move forward we'll experience additional glitches," Bataille said during a Nov. 25 news conference.
Even Sunday, one significant problem remained that the government has yet to fully resolve. The government's website is not always accurately transferring enrollment data to health insurers. Failure to accurately transfer those so-called 834 forms to insurers means a consumer who signs up for coverage may get lost in the system.
"Until the enrollment process is working from end-to-end, many consumers will not be able to enroll in coverage," Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, said in a statement issued Friday.