No worries. The Healthcare.gov website that is a key component for Obamacare will be ready for prime time by Nov. 30. In fact, as Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Wednesday, the site is already able to handle "17,000 registrants per hour ... with almost no errors."
Unfortunately, a little while later, Sebelius' optimism appeared to be undercut by one of her own employees. Julie Bataille, spokesperson with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, said that "the site is performing slowly" and that many users were having problems.
Can the Obamacare website really be fixed by the end of this month? Or are the latest sunny forecasts another prelude to a storm?
A couple hundred problems
According to Sebelius, a "couple of hundred" problems needed to be resolved. She says that these issues will be fixed on time. Whether she's right depends largely on what kind of problems are in that mix.
A lot of attention has been placed on the performance issues. The Obama administration has brought in experts from some technology heavyweights, including Google, Oracle, and Red Hat. Jeffrey Zients, the White House official now overseeing the project to fix the problems, said the page load time for Healthcare.gov has now been reduced from eight seconds to one second.
That's just one type of problem affecting Healthcare.gov, though. According to memos from the team involved in the launch of Healthcare.gov, other issues plaguing the website included insurance plans not showing up, incorrect pricing for plans, and the skipping of key steps in the application process.
Security has also emerged as a major problem. Just three days before the launch of the Obamacare website, information technology staff warned CMS that security testing was incomplete, with a "level of uncertainty that can be deemed as a high risk." These fears were confirmed when a South Carolina man discovered that his personal information was shared with a person in another state. The federal government says this problem has now been fixed.
Perhaps the biggest issue to be resolved, though, is the exchange of enrollment information with insurers. Even if the website works perfectly, individuals can't gain coverage if insurance companies can't process the applications. The problems encountered so far have been quite interesting, with some applications incorrectly showing multiple spouses for applicants and as many as 6% of applications showing individuals as incarcerated when they really weren't.
Infinite number of monkeys
There are plenty of experts who doubt that all of these problems will be fixed in only three weeks. Massachusetts Institute of Technology lecturer Howard Anderson said that the current "tech surge" is like "having an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of code-making machines."
Health-care policy guru Bob Laszewski thinks the team brought in to resolve the technical issues is strong. However, he also suspects that the progress made so far on the exchange of data with insurers is "nowhere near enough to be able to go to high-volume processing."
John Engates, chief technology officer at cloud service provider Rackspace Hosting, thinks that some problems could be related to the various systems from which Healthcare.gov interacts. If that's the case, Engates said that it's a "giant integration problem" that could be difficult to fix quickly.
CBS News recently enlisted a technology expert to take a crack at testing the security of Healthcare.gov. The expert was given the user name of a CBS employee who signed up on the website. CBS reported that "within seconds" he was able to determine which security questions the employee used. This simple hack underscores the challenges that the team charged with fixing the Obamacare website have before them.
Perhaps the most worrisome issue of all is the amount of testing needed to ensure that all of these fixes actually work. When asked in congressional hearings how much time was needed to test the Obamacare website functionality, Andrew Slavitt with UnitedHealth Group's (NYSE: UNH ) unit that served as a major contractor on building the site said that "months would have been nice."
With the clock ticking and hundreds of issues still remaining, only days will be available for testing all of those issues. UnitedHealth's Quality Software Services is now leading the effort. Whether the company can compress months of testing into less than three weeks could determine the fate of the success of the Obamacare exchanges.
Anticipating a delay
Maybe the best way to answer the question of whether the Obamacare website will really be fixed by the end of the month is to look at the actions of companies with real money riding on the outcome.
Humana (NYSE: HUM ) has already cut its estimates by half of how many individuals will enroll. The large insurer said it is anticipating a delay of the open enrollment period for Americans to purchase insurance.
UnitedHealth, which is not only helping fix the website problems but is also participating in some state exchanges, seems to suspect a delay is afoot also. The company stated this week that it would cooperate with the federal government "if a decision is made to allow individuals more time to sign up."
An extension of the open enrollment period shouldn't take a negative toll on the stocks of the big insurers. Insurance companies are lobbying, however, against suggestions to delay the mandate that individuals purchase insurance. Such an action could hurt WellPoint (NYSE: ANTM ) more than others. The nation's second-largest health insurer is participating in Obamacare exchanges in every state where it operates.
Pressure will probably mount to push back on the individual mandate, though, if the website problems aren't resolved by the end of the month. Only a few hundred problems, lots of cooks in the kitchen, and the small task of performing months of needed testing in a fraction of that time stand in the way. No worries.
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