Tight deadline looms for new federal healthcare website

Federal officials have just over three months to establish a website that contains state-by-state breakdowns of available health insurance options.

More daunting, the Department of Health and Human Services has even less time -- a mere 60 days -- to develop a "standardized format" for presenting that information about local premium costs and insurance coverage options to voters online.

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Both tight deadlines arrive by way of the comprehensive healthcare reform bill lawmakers enacted this weekend and President Barack Obama signed into law on Tuesday.

As part of the legislation's emphasis on transparency, lawmakers have tasked HHS with the responsibility of consulting with states and creating a central, online health insurance information hub by July 1, 2010.

The bill does permit HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius the ability to contract that work out to private firms, and it only requires states to take ownership and amplify those health portals once their insurance exchanges go into effect in 2014.

But the bill's "immediate establishment" clause provides for an interim resource that would help consumers make healthcare decisions while they await the law's many changes in healthcare coverage and delivery

However, the new healthcare law's website proposal could pose an early, key technological challenge for the federal bureaucracy, which has struggled recently to launch comprehensive websites in tight timeframes.

For example, the White House may have launched Recovery.gov in February -- a first for its high degree of interactivity -- just days before the president signed the 2009 federal stimulus into law. But it took federal officials until the end of the year to hammer out its kinks and address its inaccuracies.

Still, an HHS spokesperson told The Hill late Wednesday that the department was already "working hard to implement this bill responsibly"

"One of our chief goals in passing the legislation was to increase transparency and accountability when it comes to health care and to work to ensure that consumers had the information they needed about their rights and their benefits," the spokesperson said. "This web site is an important part of our strategy and we are working hard to ensure we comply with the law."