The technology team working to fix computer problems hobbling the federal insurance website HealthCare.gov may not have time for turkey this week. Federal officials set a Nov. 30 deadline to expand hardware capacity and fix software bugs for the site and say they are racing against the clock to make it work well “for the vast majority of users” by Saturday.
“We have a lot of work left to do in the next few days,” Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), told reporters Wednesday. Bataille said HealthCare.gov, which launched Oct. 1 and is meant to facilitate health-insurance enrollment for individuals in 36 states, can now handle 25,000 users at a time. She said CMS expects that capacity to double by Saturday. “We are on track for that to happen,” she said.
Yet, Bataille warned that Nov. 30 is “not a magical day.”
“There will be times after Nov. 30 when the site, like any website, does not perform optimally,” she said. Heavy traffic could overwhelm the site, causing long delays for consumers trying to sign up for coverage. Bataille said that by Saturday, CMS will implement a “more advanced queuing system” for consumers forced to wait for one of 50,000 user slots. In addition, the website may recommend some users leave and come back during “off-peak hours” and will have a system to e-mail consumers when they can return to the website and enroll in a health-insurance plan.
A separate recent announcement indicates that, in addition to the troubled HealthCare.gov, the federal government is falling further behind in its goal to implement other parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on schedule. The Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday that a new online insurance exchange for small businesses will not be operational until November 2014, more than a year after it was originally supposed to launch. The delay affects small businesses in the 36 states where exchange operations for individuals and small groups are being handled by the federal government. Until then, small businesses wanting to sign up for plans and access to ACA tax credits for coverage will be required to use paper applications with the assistance of insurance brokers and agents. The federal government had said the online application process would make it simpler for small-business owners to compare and choose plans for their employees without such assistance.
This announcement comes after a series of other delays in rolling out the ACA. In July, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that ACA fines charged to large employers who do not offer coverage would start in 2015, instead of 2014. A Spanish-language version of HealthCare.gov, originally expected to launch Oct. 1, will not function until December, HHS said on Tuesday.
And thanks to crashes, slow response times and software and hardware problems, HealthCare.gov itself has fallen behind enrollment goals set by federal officials who had hoped 7 million individuals would sign up for new coverage through that exchange and those run by states by the end of an open-enrollment period that ends March 31.
In October, 106,185 people signed up for coverage through ACA exchanges run by the federal government and states, far short of the 500,000 federal officials had reportedly projected would enroll that month. In an effort to give consumers more time to purchase plans for coverage that starts Jan. 1, when many existing individual plans will end, the federal government recently said consumers who sign up for plans by Dec. 23 could purchase insurance that will start on Jan. 1. The previous deadline for such coverage was Dec. 15.