Ailing Obamacare site to get a 'tech surge'

U.S. government calls for reinforcements to help it fix Healthcare.gov

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is boosting the IT trauma team giving urgent care to the Obamacare website, which has badly malfunctioned since its launch almost three weeks ago.

The embattled agency said on Sunday that it is working around the clock and calling in an A-Team of IT experts as it scrambles to cure the ills plaguing HealthCare.gov.

"Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the [HHS] team and help improve HealthCare.gov," the blog post reads. "We're also putting in place tools and processes to aggressively monitor and identify parts of HealthCare.gov where individuals are encountering errors or having difficulty using the site, so we can prioritize and fix them."

Other emergency measures being taken as part of what HHS calls a "tech surge" include defining new test processes to prevent new problems and regularly patching bugs during off-peak hours.

The website is the online portal for consumers seeking to buy health insurance under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, the law popularly known as Obamacare that is the signature legislation of President Barack Obama .

Since its signing in 2010, the law has been under constant political attack from Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate, who say Obamacare is a faulty piece of legislation that will do more harm than good. However, they so far have had little success in their attempts to have it struck down or defunded.

Ironically, what appears to be a bad case of IT ineptitude from President Obama's own team at HHS has done more damage to the public perception and implementation of the law these past three weeks than the years-long political challenges from Republicans.

HealthCare.gov so far has been barely functional, struggling to cope with the traffic hitting it and reportedly recording incorrectly some of the data people have submitted through it.

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that in addition to the site's performance and availability problems, HealthCare.gov is also corrupting data some consumers input, so that health insurers are receiving duplicate enrollments and applications with spouses are reported as children, missing data fields and suspect eligibility determinations.

Fixing the system, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, could take up to two months, the New York Times reported a week ago.

"Unfortunately, the experience on HealthCare.gov has been frustrating for many Americans. Some have had trouble creating accounts and logging in to the site, while others have received confusing error messages, or had to wait for slow page loads or forms that failed to respond in a timely fashion. The initial consumer experience of HealthCare.gov has not lived up to the expectations of the American people. We are committed to doing better," HHS said in its blog post Sunday.

But HHS, which is in scalding water over what many consider an unparalleled fiasco, also tried to put a positive spin on the situation and do some damage control, saying that fixing the site is a top priority and that some parts of the website have worked as intended.

"The 'Data Hub' component, which provides HealthCare.gov with information that aids in determining eligibility for qualified health plans, is working. Individuals have been able to verify their eligibility for credits, enabling them to shop for and enroll in low or even no-cost health plans," the blog post reads.

Since the site's launch, HHS has been working "around the clock" to fix the problems and has patched many bugs, which has resulted in site performance improvements, the agency said.

"Today, more and more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans. We're proud of these quick improvements, but we know there's still more work to be done. We will continue to conduct regular maintenance nearly every night to improve the experience," the post reads.

HHS also said that almost 500,000 insurance applications have been submitted nationwide and that there have been 19 million unique visits to HealthCare.gov. It's not clear if the number of applications refers to those made only via the website or if it also includes those submitted over the phone and via regular mail.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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