- The Washington Times - Monday, December 2, 2013

The Obama administration said a surge of users flocked to a revamped HealthCare.gov on Monday, but tech specialists worried that many are still waiting in line and said errors buried deep in the system could still sour those new customers taking a second look at the Obamacare marketplace.

At least 375,000 people visited the website by noon, or twice the volume of a normal Monday, a day after the administration said the website should work for 90 percent of users.

It will take several days to examine how well the repaired system is operating, but anecdotal evidence Monday suggested mixed experiences. Some users ended up waiting in a new queueing system that was designed to let users know when to try again, but other customers said the system is better.

“The site is a lot better than it was,” said John Engates, chief technology officer at Rackspace, a cloud-computer company, who toured the HealthCare.gov command center last week.

Administration officials are hoping for a smooth December after the federal website crashed in its Oct. 1 debut, revealing serious problems with the system’s software.

Monday’s flood of users is a mixed blessing for the Obama administration. It demonstrates high demand for the Affordable Care Act’s benefits, but the deadline to sign up and hold coverage by Jan. 1 is just three weeks away, and people who lost their coverage because it did not meet Obamacare’s standards face a truncated shopping window.

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Tech specialists said Monday the system faces two key tests in those crucial weeks — withstanding a high volume of simultaneous users and reporting accurate information to insurers.

They said the Obama administration may have fixed the front end of the system before the back end was sound, citing frequent errors in the “834 forms” that transmit enrollees’ personal data and plan preferences to insurance companies.

“You’re opening the bridge before the bridge is finished, and you’re going to fall in halfway across the river,” said Robert Laszewski, a health care policy consultant based in Alexandria.

Stephen Parente, a finance professor at the University of Minnesota, said “you have nothing” if back-end systems are not in place to let consumers pay insurers and to allow the Treasury to transfer subsidy payments to insurers, which offset some consumers’ premiums.

“The insurers are absolutely the final necessary mile,” he said.

Officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were unable to produce an exact error rate for the 834 reports. However, agency spokeswoman Julie Bataille said the repair team fixed a bug that had prevented Social Security numbers from being reported and had been responsible for at least 80 percent of the errors.

Mr. Engates said he was impressed by where the administration “came to, from where they were,” during his visit to the Washington area, but that the project’s architects did not seem to appreciate the scale of the project.

“This was a huge event for the administration, and it just didn’t get handled that way,” he said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney admitted Monday the private sector simply is better than the government when it comes to building a functional website.

“What is absolutely the case is the private sector does some things very well and better than the government can, and running effective websites may be one of them, is one of them,” he said, after explaining why many Americans seeking health insurance through Obamacare’s flawed website continue to run into trouble.

Officials also changed the overall look of HealthCare.gov. Now, it features a blue motif with graphics that let people calculate costs, compare plans before they apply or head straight into the application.

But if patients go to the doctor and find out they don’t really have coverage, Mr. Laszewski said, then “nobody’s going to care what tone of blue it is.”

Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

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