WASHINGTON — The pace of enrollment in health plans through the troubled federal insurance marketplace has nearly doubled since the end of October as software engineers have resolved some 200 of the more than 600 initial defects that had rendered the site all but unusable, according to people familiar with the repair effort.
As of mid-November, the number of enrollees, which the Obama administration defines as people who have selected a marketplace plan, was more than 50,000 — up from 27,000 in the entire month of October but still a fraction of the number the administration once hoped for.
Despite the progress, specialists are worried about whether they can meet the administration’s goal of enabling 4 in 5 users to enroll through the online federal exchange, HealthCare.gov, by the end of the month. One person familiar with the effort said a more realistic goal was that 4 out of 5 people “have a positive experience,” which could include being redirected to customer-service agents.
White House officials said Monday that many of the remaining users would turn to call-in or counseling centers because their insurance situations were complicated. But specialists involved in the repair effort said technical issues may frustrate more users than administration officials suggest. And it is unclear how many fixes remain to be made, because the list keeps changing.
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President Obama urged his supporters Monday to help Americans enroll for health insurance by mail, in person and over the phone, even as it appeared the White House was actively considering more ways to let people sign up, including direct enrollment through insurance companies.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said 1 in 5 Americans won’t ever be able to complete their enrollment through the website due to technical glitches, discomfort with using computers or complex personal tax situations.
“It turns out that purchasing insurance for a lot of folks is complicated,” Obama said. “We’ve made sure that we’ve got a strong plan to not just fix the website, which I’m taking responsibility for, but also to make sure there are other ways that people can sign up.”
A self-imposed deadline to have the website running smoothly for the “vast majority” of Americans is looming Nov. 30.
Obama said he was still confident the website will work for most people by the end of the month, and eventually will be the easiest place to shop for insurance. But he added that the website’s failures have fueled misinformation about the broader health-care law.
Opponents of the health-care law are already moving on to their next target. Two House committees will hold simultaneous hearings Tuesday to press officials from the Health and Human Services Department and its computer contractors on security vulnerabilities.
White House officials and some computer experts say much of the criticism is overblown, designed more to scare would-be enrollees away from the insurance exchanges than to prompt corrective action.
But the concern is bipartisan. At a closed-door meeting last week, two Democratic senators pressed administration officials on efforts by Chinese hackers to break into the site, according to a Democratic Senate official at the meeting.
“When consumers fill out their online marketplace applications, they can trust that the information that they are providing is protected by stringent security standards,” said Patti Unruh, a spokeswoman for the health department’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is responsible for the federal exchange. “Security testing happens on an ongoing basis using industry best practices to appropriately safeguard consumers’ personal information.”
On Friday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a field hearing in the politically sensitive state of North Carolina on yet another front: rate shocks that Republicans insist are coming.
The computer security question may be particularly delicate. The federal insurance website collects a broad range of personal information, including applicants’ Social Security numbers, addresses, emails, income and health information.
House Republicans have latched on to a final report by the Mitre Corp., one of the main firms hired to assess the security of the site, which said Oct. 11, 11 days after the site went live, that it was “unable to adequately test the confidentiality and integrity” of the health exchange “in full.” Mitre went on to say that a “complete end-to-end testing” of the site “never occurred.”
When the health-care exchanges first opened for business, there was an important vulnerability that could have allowed hackers to try to hijack users’ accounts by resetting their passwords. But federal officials fixed that problem the same day they learned about it, after it was pointed out to them by Ben Simo, a software engineer and tester from Arizona.
Some vulnerabilities still existed through mid-November, Simo said. For example, the enrollment system sent consumers their username and account activation code in a single message, which could potentially be intercepted.
That combination has led to repeated warnings, and a continued focus at congressional hearings on the possibility that hackers might gain access to private, personal data.
But federal officials and cybersecurity experts said that while there was reason to be concerned, the threat might not be as dire as some lawmakers have suggested. As of last week, the Homeland Security Department had received reports of 16 attempted cyberattacks, all of which it was investigating. So far, officials said, they had not found any case in which personal information was compromised.