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|Elise Vliebeck||December 1st 2013|
The Obama administration claimed victory Sunday for making HealthCare.gov workable for the vast majority of users, a standard that will be tested as millions of people flood the site in the next three weeks. Sunday marked the passage of the administration's self-imposed deadline for fixing the broken ObamaCare enrollment website, which serves consumers in 36 states.
The agency that oversees HealthCare.gov said "we believe we have met the goal" of making the system navigable for most people, but cautioned that more problems may lie ahead. "Dramatic progress has been made," the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stated in a report released Sunday morning. "[But] there is more work to be done to continue to improve and enhance the website."
The mixed message highlights the challenge facing the Obama administration as it seeks to ensure that millions can sign up for individual health plans online by the end of March.
HealthCare.gov debuted with serious technical problems on Oct. 1, plunging President Obama into a political firestorm that engulfed the White House for weeks.
The question now is whether the system can handle the high volume of user traffic expected in December.
Consumers must complete the sign-up process by Dec. 23 in order to obtain plans that begin Jan. 1, and the site has experienced some unscheduled outages over the last month.
Administration officials acknowledge that there are more errors to fix with HealthCare.gov. The severity of these issues is unknown, and it is possible that some have yet to be discovered.
"As with any web project, there is not a magic moment [for completion], but a process of continual improvement over time," CMS communications director Julie Bataille said Sunday.
Other officials struck a more confident tone while acknowledging the fixes that lie ahead.
Jeff Zients, the former White House budget director appointed to triage the site, said HealthCare.gov is "night and day" different from how it was on Oct. 1.
He also said the HealthCare.gov is performing well this weekend in the face of "significantly higher" traffic than usual.
In its report, CMS touted metrics indicating its progress in shoring up the site. Many of data points had been previously released or alluded to by federal health officials, such as faster page load times and fewer error messages.
According to the document, HealthCare.gov's repair team has made more than 400 technical fixes to the site since Oct. 1 and has restored the site's capacity to the originally intended level of 50,000 concurrent users.
Both hardware and software upgrades have made the system much more stable, CMS said.
The report contained some technical language but few details about individual bugs that have been addressed. Officials noted that the system was functioning 95 percent of the time on Saturday, up from about 43 percent at the beginning of November.
The agency's progress could help tamp down some of the criticism surrounding HealthCare.gov botched rollout, provided the site remains fairly stable in the coming weeks.
Republicans are preparing to use any signs of failure, or anecdotes about user difficulty, to argue that the administration was unprepared to launch the Affordable Care Act's signature enrollment system.
But there is still much left to do for federal health officials, and ongoing glitches could imperil the success of the enrollment process.
Still unresolved is the flawed application data being transmitted to insurance companies in the form of so-called 834 forms. Unless these errors are fully fixed, new policyholders could encounter serious problems when they seek to use their coverage.
The White House is also vulnerable when it comes to other parts of the rollout that remain delayed or incomplete.
The online enrollment site for small businesses will not launch until next year, the administration announced this week, and the Spanish-language system has been languishing for months.
A separate, crucial system involving payments to insurance companies also remained under construction as of last month.
The wide reach of problems with ObamaCare’s implementation has raised questions for Obama about the effectiveness of key players within his administration.
No one has been fired over the rollout, according to the White House, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has remained in her job despite wide calls for her resignation.
In an interview Friday, Obama said his focus in the short term is on fixing HealthCare.gov, not finding heads that should roll.
"Obviously my most recent concern has been that my website's not working ... and we're evaluating why it is exactly that I didn't know soon enough," Obama said in an interview with ABC’s 20/20. "But my priority now has been to just make sure that it works."
Administration officials sought to demonstrate Sunday that their management approach has changed in light of the debacle with HealthCare.gov.
CMS acknowledged that there were few "system monitoring and response mechanisms" on Oct. 1 for understanding and addressing the system's problems.
"Inadequate management oversight and coordination among technical teams prevented real-time decision making and efficient responses to address the issues with the site," Sunday's report stated.
The agency said it has since achieved "private sector velocity" and "clear accountability and decision-making" by streamlining communications and creating more efficient chains-of-command.
Moving past Nov. 30 shifts attention to the next set of hurdles facing ObamaCare's rollout.
Millions of people must enroll in the new marketplaces by next spring, and without strong sign-up numbers from the young and healthy, premiums could rise significantly next year.
Reflecting on the rollout Friday, Obama sought to frame his healthcare law in broader terms. He said the rollout's many problems won't define the Affordable Care Act in the future.
"[I am] absolutely convinced that at the end of the day, people are going to look back at the work we've done to make sure that in this country, you don't go bankrupt when you get sick, that families have that security," Obama said.
"That is going to be a legacy I am extraordinarily proud of."
Elise Vliebeck writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.