Shopping Online For Health Exchanges Not Perfect Yet

There has not been much of a Thanksgiving break for the team that's been working frantically to repair the website of the federal government's health insurance exchanges. After a disastrous debut last month, the Obama administration promised the site would be working smoothly for the "vast majority" of users by the end of November. Where do things stand?

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning. We hope many of you are enjoying some time off for Thanksgiving, maybe doing some shopping, but meanwhile work is continuing on the website for the federal health care exchanges.

WERTHEIMER: Just before the holiday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that one part of the site won't be ready. Small businesses who were supposed to be using healthcare.gov to purchase plans for their employees.

GREENE: That online enrollment option is not yet ready and won't be for up to another year. Now, for individuals, the process of signing up on healthcare.gov is supposed to be improved much sooner than that.

WERTHEIMER: The Obama administration promised the site would be working smoothly for, quote, the vast majority of users by the end of November. Now we're almost there. So how are they doing? NPR's White House correspondent, Scott Horsley, joins us now. Scott, is the administration going to be able to keep its promise?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Linda, they say they are on track to meet that target but it's not all that easy to measure. I mean, what does it mean to say the site's working smoothly? What is the vast majority of users? We have certainly heard from NPR listeners who have witnessed a big improvement in the site from its early days who've been able to navigate the process and wind up with insurance.

We have also heard from some who continue to be stuck and hit software roadblocks. The White House goal is that by this weekend maybe eight out of 10 people will be able to get on the site, see what plans are available to them, find out if they qualify for a government subsidy, and purchase insurance. At the same time, maybe two in 10 will have to call for help, either because of a technical problem or maybe a complicated situation that just stumps the website.

WERTHEIMER: So what has the administration been doing? I mean what does a fix look like?

HORSLEY: One of first things they did was hire a company to act as the system integrator or the general contractor, to make sure all the various pieces of the website work together. That's a function the government was initially doing in-house and they didn't do it very well. They've also added a lot of computing horsepower, more servers, more storage so they can actually handle 50,000 users at a time, as advertised.

And they've been gradually weeding out hundreds of software bugs that were preventing customers from getting through the process. But officials say this is not a binary process, if you will, where the site is not working one day and will be working the next. It's more of a continuum. Here's Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talking to reporters in Florida earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: It's not like we're off and then going to go on, on December first. It is far faster than it was when we first opened. The error rate is down to less than one percent and the volume capacity is continued to be added to.

HORSLEY: The administration says they'll now have the capacity to hand some 800,000 users a day. But, you know, they had nearly five million visitors on that first day back in October. So you're seeing some kind of mixed signals from the administration. On the one hand, they're quietly encouraging people to come back, give the site a try. One the other hand, they're not really launching their full-throated marketing campaign yet.

They want to say the door is open but they don't want a Three Stooges-style jam-up right on the threshold of the website.

WERTHEIMER: So they'll keep working on the website after tomorrow but people who need insurance are facing their own deadlines, right?

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. The people who have private policies now, a lot of those are expiring at the end of December and they need to sign up so they'll have health coverage continuing on January 1st. Others are trying to decide whether to re-up with a private insurance plan and want to know if there's a better policy waiting for them on the government website or not.

Last week, the administration gave customers an extra week. So the deadline to sign up for coverage that begins January 1st is now right before Christmas, rather than December 15th. But by pushing that signup deadline past, the government has really put pressure on the companies selling insurance because they'll now have just one week to process those applications before the policies are supposed to take effect.

WERTHEIMER: Now here's a scary thought. We've heard the back end of the website, the part that's supposed to deliver payments to the insurance companies, does not yet exist.

HORSLEY: That's right. The fix-it team the government assembled for this project has been putting most of its energy into the front end of the website, trying to create a better consumer experience. Or at least an experience that's not completely off-putting. But another challenge is making sure that once people hit the button to sign up for coverage, the insurance companies actually know they've signed up, and that the payments and subsidies are eventually delivered to the insurance companies so the coverage actually takes effect.

And the administration has acknowledged that part of the job will not be finished on November 30th. It's nowhere close. So there's still a lot of work ahead.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's White House correspondent, Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Linda.

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