WH: ObamaCare site fixes 'on target'

The Obama administration is confident it has met the Nov. 30 deadline for having HealthCare.gov working better for individual consumers seeking coverage on the federal exchanges.

While Health and Human Services (HHS) has declined to declare that all of the website’s bugs have been eliminated, and has steered away from providing specifics about what metrics it hoped to hit, it appears the administration is poised to move beyond the most chaotic and damaging two months of Obama’s presidency.

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“With the scheduled upgrades last night and tonight, we're on target to meet our stated goal to increase capacity and for the site to work for the vast majority of users,” Aaron Albright, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services director of media relations, told The Hill in an email on Saturday.

Officials will brief reporters on progress during a conference call on Sunday morning.

Wednesday’s announcement that the small business application on the website would be delayed for a full year seemed like an ominous development ahead of the much-anticipated Nov. 30 deadline. But the critical Thanksgiving weekend is passing by quietly so far.

“The site is performing well today with low overall error rates and response times despite heavier than usual weekend traffic,” CMS spokesperson Julie Bataille said in a statement. 

By most accounts, HealthCare.gov has substantially improved since its failed debut on Oct. 1, although the site’s unpredictability remains a concern. HealthCare.gov was down for 11 hours on Friday for scheduled repairs, in what appeared to be a last minute push ahead of the deadline.

But Bataille also acknowledged in a blog post that additional fixes would be addressed through the night on Saturday.

“We are making additional hardware upgrades and software fixes tonight as part of a planned set of improvements to improve speed and reduce errors,” she said. “With upgrades last night and those planned for tonight, the team is continuing its ongoing work to make HealthCare.gov work smoothly for the vast majority of users.”

HHS’s massive “tech surge” has ramped-up further in recent weeks as the administration desperately worked to hit a deadline after two months of apologies, political backpedaling, false starts, and unilateral delays to the law.

An administration official confirmed to The Hill the details surrounding a Columbia, Maryland “war room” with 15 large screen computers monitoring the website’s performance in real-time. Contractors and officials are holding troubleshooting conference calls twice a day to review the previous 12 hours of activity.

In addition, the lead general contractor, QSSI, has organized hundreds of technical analysts at the Maryland command center, where hardware and software teams are working in conjunction with CMS and a handful of other contracting companies.

Still, the administration has been intentionally vague about what would qualify as a successful first phase of fixes.

When the website went live on Oct. 1, it was supposed to be able to handle 50,000 users at one time, and some statements from officials indicate the site will be able to function at that capacity going forward. Other statements have indicated the site is 80 percent fixed, although that’s a soft metric that’s difficult to gauge.

The administration has sought to minimize expectations for the website’s performance, with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius consistently making the point that all improvements have been incremental. She insists that there’s not a “magic” switch the administration can flip on Nov. 30 that will solve all of the site’s problems.

And still, more hurdles await. Even if the site continues to work for most users, the first enrollment period deadline of Dec. 23 is approaching.

Many are expecting an influx of consumers seeking last-minute coverage in the days before that deadline, with some estimating up to 250,000 users might flood the site at one time.

In addition, CMS’s release of December’s enrollment figures will be closely watched after an embarrassingly low number of consumers purchased healthcare through the federal exchanges in the first month of the launch.

The administration badly needs young and healthy consumers to flock to the exchanges to ensure a diverse risk pool to keep premiums from spiking in 2015.

The functioning website should go a long way to helping the administration hit its targets, but it would help if some of the peripheral parts of the site – the small business application and the Spanish language website, for instance - were up and working.

If the site is indeed running smoother for most individual users going forward, the army of technicians working on site will be able to focus their energies on some of these aspects that haven’t received the same scrutiny as the individual markets.

--This report was originally published on Saturday at 5:10 p.m. and was last updated on Sunday at 7:29 a.m.