Officials: Health care website making strides

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration said Sunday that the federal government's health care website is now operating more smoothly after a major overhaul seen as critical to the success of the president's signature domestic initiative. The stakes are high for President Barack Obama at a time when the rocky rollout of the health care overhaul has caused his poll numbers to drop sharply and left his fellow Democrats nervously looking ahead to next year's elections when control of Congress will be at stake.

Visitors to the HealthCare.gov website, a key component of Obama's health care overhaul, were encountering fewer errors and the system now works most of the time, administration officials said Sunday in a progress report.

But they also acknowledged the troubled rollout of HealthCare.gov included hundreds of software bugs, inadequate equipment and inefficient management.

The government says more than 50,000 people can log on to the website and more than 800,000 people will be able to shop for insurance coverage each day. It's a dramatic improvement from the first weeks of the system, which saw frustrated buyers watch their computer screens freeze, the website crash and error messages multiply.

"The bottom line — HealthCare.gov on December 1st is night and day from where it was on October 1st," chief White House troubleshooter Jeff Zients told reporters.

Amid all the problems with HealthCare.gov, Obama set a deadline for Saturday for several significant problems to be resolved. The administration organized a conference call with reporters Sunday morning to give a status report.

"There is more work to be done to continue to improve and enhance the website and continue to improve the consumer experience in the weeks and months ahead," the Department of Health and Human Services wrote in a memo to reporters.

The White House is hoping for a fresh start. A wave of bad publicity over the site's early failures cast a shadow over the president's chief domestic achievement, threatening to derail his second-term agenda.

The president's approval ratings have dropped steadily since the disastrous Oct. 1 launch of the website which was set up to enable Americans to buy health insurance policies from private insurers. Both major political parties were closely watching this weekend to see whether the vast majority of those who try to sign up for policies on the website will succeed.

Republicans in control of the House of Representatives have gone on record with dozens of votes to repeal "Obamacare," only to see their efforts thwarted by the Democratic-controlled Senate. "Obamacare's" failures have left Democrats vulnerable to an orchestrated assault by Republicans who only a few weeks ago were reeling on the losing end of the federal government shutdown. Democrats need to gain 17 seats to win back the majority in the House of Representatives, while Republicans need to gain six seats to take control of the Senate.

As a result of the website troubles, HealthCare.gov, which services 36 states, signed up just 27,000 people in October, while the 14 states that run their own websites enrolled 79,000. The total of roughly 106,000 was far off the administration's estimate that nearly 500,000 people would enroll within the first month of the six-month enrollment period.

Even with the repairs in place, the website still won't be able to do everything the administration wants, and companion sites for small businesses and Spanish speakers have been delayed. Questions remain about the stability of the site and the quality of the data it delivers to insurers.

Obama promised a few weeks ago that HealthCare.gov "will work much better on Nov. 30, Dec. 1, than it worked certainly on Oct. 1." But, in trying to lower expectations, he said he could not guarantee that "100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time going on this website will have a perfectly seamless, smooth experience."

Obama rightly predicted errors would remain. The department reported the website is up and running 95 percent of the time — meaning a 1-in-20 chance of finding a broken website remains. The government also estimated that pages crashed a rate less than once every 100 clicks.

There is no way to independently verify the administration's figures.

The nation's largest health insurer trade group said significant problems remain.

Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, said insurers have complained that enrollment data sent to them from the website include too much incorrect, duplicative, garbled or missing information. She said the problems must be cleared up to guarantee consumers the coverage they signed up for effective Jan. 1.

The first big test of the repaired website probably won't come for a few more weeks, when an enrollment surge is expected as consumers rush to meet a Dec. 23 deadline so their coverage can kick in on the first of the year.

Avoiding a break in coverage is particularly important for millions of people whose current individual policies were canceled because they don't meet the standards of the health care law, as well as for a group of about 100,000 in an expiring federal program for high-risk patients. The law requires most people who don't have health insurance to buy coverage or pay fines.

If HealthCare.gov seizes up again at crunch time, the White House may have to yield to congressional demands for extensions or delays in key requirements of the law, such as the individual requirement to get covered. Delaying the individual mandate, in turn, could lead to higher future premiums, since healthy people would no longer have an incentive to sign up.

For the system to be successful, the administration needs large numbers of mostly younger, healthy people to buy coverage to help offset the cost of insuring older people who generally use more health care services. Federal subsidies are available to those who qualify to help lower the cost of insurance.

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Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington contributed to this report.

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