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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

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

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

We are almost at the end of November. And that is when the Obama administration faces a self-imposed deadline.

JAY CARNEY: By November 30th, HealthCare.gov will be working smoothly for the vast majority of users.

GREENE: That's White House press secretary Jay Carney, talking about efforts to fix the error-riddled online health insurance exchanges being run by the federal government.

This week, the administration announced small businesses will have to wait another year before they're able to use HealthCare.gov to find plans for their employees. But for individuals looking to buy a plan, the question looms: Is the website fixed?

Here's NPR's Elise Hu.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: In a nondescript building in Columbia, Maryland, you'll find the new operations center for HealthCare.gov. After the site failed to work in October, engineers, database architects and contractors from different companies got pulled together to work in one room.

JOHN ENGATES: Imagine a room full of desks that look like, you know, the consoles in a control center, like a NASA control center.

HU: John Engates didn't engineer HealthCare.gov, but as chief technology officer for the server and software company Rackspace, he was one of half a dozen outside technologists invited by the White House to go inside the command center this week.

ENGATES: On the walls, you have these giant, you know, flat-panel monitors that have metrics about how the site's doing. You know, uptime metrics, performance metrics, graphs that show, you know, how different aspects of the website are performing in real time.

HU: The administration isn't releasing another batch of insurance enrollment numbers until mid-December. But the site metrics show the HealthCare.gov tech system is getting stronger. On day one, page loads topped eight seconds. That's now down to a fraction of a second. Overall, system errors have dropped. And the site is now on track to handle 50,000 users at once. That's the original objective for opening day.

HIMANSHU SAREEN: So the definition of working well is relative to how badly it was working earlier on.

HU: Himanshu Sareen is CEO of Icreon Tech, which develops enterprise software.

SAREEN: It is working better, for sure. But I think it's relative, right, because we started out with a system that just did not work at all.

HU: By one key metric, public confidence, HealthCare.gov's already taken the kind of hits that will be hard to rehabilitate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Things don't always work like they're supposed to.

HU: Private insurance companies are capitalizing on HealthCare.gov's troubles as a way to sell their own out-of-exchange policies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good thing the government exchange isn't the only place to buy health insurance.

HU: Engates, who visited the control center, says he's more hopeful now that he's seen it from the inside.

ENGATES: You sort of assume the worst, and until you know anything better, that's kind of your impression. But I do have a lot better sense that things are on the right track now.

HU: But just because the consumer experience is smoother on the front-end doesn't mean the whole system is running as intended.

ROBERT ZIRKELBACH: The back-end challenges are still not resolved.

HU: Robert Zirkelbach is spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the trade association for insurers. He says the invisible part of the system that sends enrollment data to insurance companies is still far from perfect.

ZIRKELBACH: Health plans are still receiving enrollments that have information that is inaccurate or missing. Some of the enrollments are duplicates, and other enrollments aren't even making it to the health plan.

HU: The administration has said again and again: We may be reaching this late November deadline, but it's not a quote, "magical date," as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services' Julie Bataille emphasized on Wednesday.

JULIE BATAILLE: There are things that are high priority fixes that remain on our punch list that we are actively working through over the next few days.

HU: Keeping the exchange operations center a busy place through the weekend.

Elise Hu, NPR News, Washington.

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