After two months of relentless criticism about the troubled rollout of the new federal health care law, today marks the day when President Barack Obama pledged that the flawed website, HealthCare.gov, would be fixed.
White House officials say they expect that vow to be fulfilled, at least for the vast majority of Americans who need to access the website to sign up for health insurance. But anything less than success today probably will be a crippling blow in a second term where Obama faces many tough political challenges, from budget battles to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
The HealthCare.gov rollout disaster has sapped the president’s popularity, sending his approval rating in recent opinion polls to its lowest level ever. That gives the relaunch of the website an importance that goes beyond the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which already was considered the president’s signature domestic achievement.
Hundreds of employees from about a dozen companies have been working around the clock since late October to make hardware and software changes to the website before the administration’s self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline.
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They expect the site to be able to handle 50,000 simultaneous users and 800,000 daily visitors. If too many people try to access the website at the same time, some will be put in a queue to wait until the volume has decreased.
“We think we have the capacity to handle the demand,” said Jeffrey Zients, an administration official who served as the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget and is overseeing the site repair efforts. “That said, there could be moments in the middle of the day … where capacity goes beyond that current user level, at which point there will be a customer-friendly queuing system which would notify you when to come back to the site and sort of be first in line.”
Zients said that when he agreed to manage the improvement to HealthCare.gov he realized the site was fixable but that it needed a fresh set of eyes, additional expertise and what he calls “private-sector speed” and “ruthless prioritization.”
The Obama administration chose Optum QSSI, a company that had built one of the pieces of HealthCare.gov, to oversee the repair of the website, much as a general contractor would.
The White House invited select reporters to hear about some of the behind-the-scenes efforts from several consultants earlier this week, though it didn’t provide access to the work sites.
A command center – dubbed the Exchange Operation Center – was set up in Columbia, Md., to monitor the website and respond to problems 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
At all times, a team of about 25 people from multiple companies with contracts to work on the site monitors 15 large screens, assessing everything from current traffic on the website to the number of people who are trying to use a certain function.
“All these people are here because they bring a certain expertise to the table that helps us troubleshoot and react to any incident that may occur on the website real time,” said Bikram Bakshi, the president and CEO of QSSI.
Each morning and each evening, the team has a “war room call” to discuss the last 12 hours of site performance, based on screen grabs of the data.
“Anything in there that isn’t what we want it to be we would call attention to and make sure that somebody is following up on it,” said Mikey Dickerson, who’s on unpaid leave from Google to help with HealthCare.gov.
A second team has been working to upgrade hardware, including databases, servers, computing power and network switches. A third team, in Tysons Corner, Va., is focused on fixing the software bugs on key areas of the site, including applications, plan comparisons and enrollment.
White House officials say that more than 300 software improvements and a slew of hardware upgrades have improved the site’s ability to handle complex transactions. Pages load faster and the per-page frequency of system timeouts and failures has shrunk.
Anecdotal reports suggest that the site is much improved from its launch Oct. 1, when many users found they couldn’t register and those who could found it impossible to compare plans. As a result, only 26,000 people enrolled through the federal site in the first month, when officials had expected 500,000.
After two months of trouble, officials say they expect that 4 out of 5 users will be able to compare, apply for and enroll in new health coverage in December. A surge in sign-ups is expected by Dec. 23, the last day to enroll in coverage that starts Jan. 1.
News of improved access to the federal website, which serves residents of the 36 states that declined to set up their own health insurance marketplaces, is also expected to lead to more people signing up in the 14 states that operate their own websites. Though those sites performed far better, officials in those states have said that many people didn’t try to sign up because they didn’t realize that the federal website and the state sites were separate.
Not everything that federal officials initially had hoped the website could do will be available today, however. On Wednesday, the government delayed for at least a year small businesses’ ability to go online to compare policies for their employees, and there’s no word on when a Spanish-language version of HealthCare.gov will be available.
Other problems will no doubt arise.
“The nature of software is one of continuous improvement,” said Steven VanRoekel, whom Obama appointed to be the chief information officer of the United States serving as an administrator of the electronic parts of the federal government. “The nature of software in general is that you do incremental updates, patches, fixes.”