By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
and Alan Fram
WASHINGTON: On the defensive, the Obama administration acknowledged Wednesday its problem-plagued health-insurance website didn’t get enough testing before going live. It said technicians were deep into the job of fixing major computer snags but provided no timetable.
Democratic unhappiness with the situation began growing louder — including one call for President Barack Obama to “man up” and fire someone — as the president’s allies began to fret about the political fallout from the Affordable Care Act. Democrats had hoped to run for re-election touting the benefits of the health-care law for millions of uninsured Americans, but the computer problems are keeping many people from signing up.
And Republican sniping continued unabated, with House Speaker John Boehner declaring, “We’ve got the whole threat of Obamacare continuing to hang over our economy like a wet blanket.”
Obama himself, though strongly defending the health-care overhaul, has been increasingly willing to acknowledge extensive problems with the sign-up through online markets. Amid all that, the Health and Human Services Department on Wednesday provided its most specific accounting yet of the troubles with HealthCare.gov — an issue that is also about to get a lengthy, even-less-forgiving airing on Capitol Hill.
The first of several hearings is set for today in the Republican-led House, with lawmakers ready to pounce on the contractors who built the balky online enrollment system.
Acknowledging what’s been obvious to many outside experts, the administration said Wednesday that the system didn’t get enough testing, especially at a high-user volume. It blamed a compressed time frame for meeting the Oct. 1 deadline to open the insurance markets.
Several problems exist
The Health and Human Services explanation identified some bugs that have gotten little outside attention.
For example, technical problems have surfaced that are making it hard for people to complete the application and plan-shopping functions. That’s a big concern because those stages are further along in the sign-up process than the initial registration, where many consumers have been getting tripped up. The problems are being analyzed and fixes are planned, the department said.
The explanation, posted online in a department blog and accompanying graphic, identified other broad areas of problems and outlined fixes underway but in most cases incomplete:
• Unexpectedly high consumer interest that overwhelmed the system in its initial days. Equipment has been added to handle the load and system design has been improved. More fixes are in progress.
• Lack of a way for consumers to browse their health plan options without first having to set up a user account. A partial fix is in place.
• Incorrect or duplicate information in enrollments is being delivered to insurance companies. Some software fixes that should help address the issue have been completed, others are underway.
• Difficulties for consumers trying to create user accounts, including drop-down menus that didn’t work. Design changes and software fixes should address the situation.
The new markets are supposed to be the portal to coverage for people who don’t get health insurance on the job. Middle-class people are to pick from subsidized private insurance plans, while low-income people are steered to Medicaid in states that agreed to expand that safety-net program.
The federal government is running the online markets in 36 states, and its website has had more than its share of problems. As a result, even Obama has urged consumers to revert to low-tech approaches, by applying through the mail, telephoning federal call centers, or seeking in-person assistance.