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VOL. 128 | NO. 235 | Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Government Diagnosis: HealthCare.gov on the Mend

PHILIP ELLIOTT | Associated Press

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Computer crashes should be giving way to insurance coverage – if the government's diagnosis of its health care website is correct.

The Health and Human Services Department released a progress report Sunday on its effort get the troubled HealthCare.gov website on the mend. Administration officials said the worst of the online glitches, bugs and delays may be over.

"The bottom line – HealthCare.gov on Dec. 1 is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1," said Jeff Zients, the White House's troubleshooter tasked with making the website function properly.

Overnight Sunday, technicians deployed a major new upgrade in the form of a window shopping feature that lets consumers get details on their insurance options without first having to fill out an application.

The lack of an anonymous shopper feature was one of the major early shortcomings of the system. A stopgap version that was belatedly put in place until now was seen as rudimentary at best. The new version lets consumers get premium quotes by age, and also displays important plan details such as deductibles.

Yet officials acknowledged more work remains on the website, which made its national debut two months ago with hundreds of software flaws, inadequate equipment and inefficient management. Federal workers and private contractors have undertaken an intense reworking of the system.

One problem that consumers can't see – at least not yet – is quickly moving up to the top of the White House priority list. Insurers complain that much of the enrollment information they have gotten through the system's back-room operation is practically useless: erroneous, duplicative or garbled.

That raises the possibility that a patient could go to use their new coverage next January at the pharmacy or doctor's office only to be told they are not in the system.

"In addition to fixing the technical problems with healthcare.gov the significant 'back-end' issues must also be resolved to ensure that coverage can begin on January 1," said Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, the largest industry trade group. "In particular, the ongoing problems with processing...enrollment files need to be fixed."

The next crucial deadline for the system is Dec. 23, two days before Christmas.

Consumers must be enrolled by that date so their coverage can kick in on the first of the year.

"There's not really any way to verify from the outside that the vast majority of people who want to enroll can now do so, but we'll find out at least anecdotally over the coming days if the system can handle the traffic and provide a smooth experience for people trying to sign up," said Larry Levitt, a senior adviser at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But, he added, HealthCare.gov is clearly working better than when it first went online. Its challenge now is to convince users who were frustrated during their first visit to give it another chance.

HealthCare.gov was envisioned as the principal place for people in 36 states to buy insurance under President Barack Obama's health care law. But its first few weeks were an embarrassment for the administration and its allies.

Obama made Dec. 1 a self-imposed deadline to fix several significant problems and the administration organized a conference call with reporters Sunday to boast that 400 technical problems had been resolved. Officials, however, declined to say how many items remain on the to-do list.

Even with the repairs in place, the site still won't be able to do everything the administration wants, and companion sites for small businesses and Spanish speakers have been delayed. Questions remain about the stability of the site and the quality of the data it delivers to insurers.

Obama promised a few weeks ago that HealthCare.gov "will work much better on Nov. 30, Dec. 1, than it worked certainly on Oct. 1." But, in trying to lower expectations, he said he could not guarantee that "100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time going on this website will have a perfectly seamless, smooth experience."

Obama rightly predicted errors would remain. The department reported the website was up and running 95 percent of the time last week – meaning a 1-in-20 chance remains of encountering a broken website. The government also estimated that pages crashed at a rate less than once every 100 clicks.

But the administration gave itself a passing grade for meeting its goal of allowing 50,000 people to log onto the website at one time and more than 800,000 people to shop for insurance coverage each day.

If true, it's a dramatic improvement from the system's first weeks, when frustrated buyers watched their computer screen freeze, the website crash and error messages multiply.

The figures – which could not be independently verified – suggest millions of Americans could turn to their laptops to shop for and buy insurance policies by Dec. 23.

Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

Follow Philip Elliot on Twitter: www.twitter.com/philiprelliott

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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