For the past few weeks, U.S. officials and government contractors have been pleased with the performance of the HealthCare.gov website. But Friday brought a reminder of the site’s disastrous rollout when it suffered an unexpected outage just days before a crucial enrollment deadline.
The outage, which was resolved after three hours, underscored the challenges as President Barack Obama’s health law reaches a key coverage deadline. Consumers have until Monday night to sign up for insurance that can take effect on Jan. 1, the date that lawmakers originally expected to see its benefits become widely adopted. The final deadline for 2014 enrollment is March 31.
Before the HealthCare.gov website’s launch, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office had projected that about seven million people would sign up through the Affordable Care Act’s new insurance exchanges for private coverage in 2014 over the full enrollment period.
On Friday, Mr. Obama announced that more than one million Americans had signed up for health insurance through federal and state exchanges, almost tripling the enrollment totals as of the end of November but still well below initial estimates. He said tens of thousands of people were enrolling each day on HealthCare.gov.
To help it withstand a last-minute surge of users, technology contractors have been racing to bolster the site. An error made during a routine maintenance job was blamed for Friday’s outage, highlighting the continued fragility of the site.
“The primary challenge is making sure the system is tuned up and ready to handle the increase in traffic,” said Gary Bloom, chief executive of MarkLogic Corp., one of the main providers of database software for the site.
Officials have deployed a queuing system at times of peak demand. In the first week of December, more than 16,000 queued users were sent an email telling them when to come to the site. Officials said more than 93% of people who got the email returned. The system was deployed during Friday’s outage, the first time since early this month. Administration officials said they were also staffing up their call centers ahead of Monday to handle a rush, including adding 800 new agents, bringing the total to 12,000.
Other hurdles remain: finishing the back-end system that processes payments to insurers, fixing errors in information sent to insurers and moving the website to a new data center in the spring as the final enrollment deadline hits.