The Obama administration said Friday it will take another month to work the kinks out of its balky health care website, now promising that most consumers will be able to easily navigate the site by the end of November.
A management expert pulled in to help the White House fix the website said a review has identified the problems but that it’s going to take several weeks to address them.
“It will take a lot of work and there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed, but let me be clear: Healthcare.gov is fixable,” said Jeff Zients, a management expert who earlier this week was asked to review the troubled program run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Zients said the site is “getting better as we speak” and that tech experts are confident that by the end of November, the site “will operate smoothly for the vast majority of users.”
Health and Human Services officials said users should expect “fewer timeouts and less errors” in the coming weeks.
The date is the first deadline administration officials have offered for the fix and it comes as the glitches, roadblocks and rising frustration among potential consumers are increasingly making Democrats nervous.
Ten Democratic senators wrote Friday to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, asking her to extend the open enrollment deadline for purchasing insurance for two months beyond the stated cutoff, March 31, 2014, citing the website’s persistent hiccups.
The White House didn’t directly answer the Senate request, but Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday that “we’re less than four weeks into a six-month enrollment process.”
Still, Earnest said there was “no question” that the flawed website will have an effect on enrollment numbers.
“This is going to have an impact on the number of people who enroll early on,” he said, adding that the pace historically picks up as the deadline approaches. He noted that when Massachusetts set up a similar health care plan several years ago, it had “a grand total of 123 people” signed up the first month.
“Obviously, the pace of enrollments increased dramatically as it got closer to the deadline,” he said. “We expect to see a similar trend in those enrollment figures related to the Affordable Care Act.”
An outside review released Friday seemed to confirm the administration’s stance, finding that the bulk of enrollees may wait until near the deadline to enroll.
The survey by Avalere Health, a private data analysis firm, found that the number of applications submitted to date for the Affordable Care Act – 700,000 – already exceeded comparable enrollment in the Medicare Part D prescription-drug expansion in 2003.
Avalere found just 10 percent of enrollees had signed up for Medicare Part D by December 2005, a month before the drug coverage first became available. If the experience is applied to the Affordable Care Act exchanges, Avalere said, fewer than 700,000 people would be expected to enroll in exchange coverage by Nov. 15. The firm noted that it’s not yet known how many of the 700,000 applicants will complete the purchase and enroll in a plan.
“People are slow to purchase coverage when new programs begin, and if past programs are any guide, we expect most exchange participants will wait until after January 2014 to enroll,” said Caroline Pearson, vice president at Avalere Health. “This suggests that if early website problems are resolved before the end of the year, they should not meaningfully decrease the size of these new exchange markets.”
Avalere’s analysis found that two-thirds of Medicare beneficiaries who enrolled in a standalone Part D plan signed up after coverage began. Twenty-two percent of Part D enrollees signed up in the final month of the enrollment period, suggesting that nearly 1.6 million people could wait until March to enroll in an exchange plan.
Zients said the website already is showing signs of improvement. In the first few days, he said, very few users were able to even create an account, “now over 90 percent can create an account.”
And he said performance “has been volatile” for the second step in the signup process. At one point, fewer than three out of 10 users were able to complete applications, he said.
“The bottom line is performance of the system has been unacceptable,” Zients said.
He said techs identified two primary problems with the site, including performance that slows the site, as well as functional problems that prevent the software from working as it should.
“It’s going to take a lot of work and some time, but there’s a clear path forward,” Zients said, adding the department has identified a “punch list” of fixes it will complete, one by one.
HHS also is appointing a general contractor, Quality Software Services Inc., to manage the effort.
“Each week healthcare.gov will get faster and better,” Zients said. “And by the end of November, the vast majority of consumers will be able to successfully and smoothly enroll through healthcare.gov.”
By Lesley Clark
McClatchy Washington Bureau