WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Sunday that it has enlisted experts from across the government and from private companies to help rewrite computer code and make other improvements to the online health-insurance marketplace, which has been plagued by technical defects that have stymied many consumers since it opened nearly three weeks ago.
The team has come up with new ways of figuring out which parts of the federal website, HealthCare.gov, are balking and has been taking it offline for rigorous overnight tests, said a Health and Human Services (HHS) Department spokesman.
“Unfortunately, the experience on HealthCare.gov has been frustrating for many Americans,” HHS officials said in a blog post Sunday afternoon, acknowledging what has been obvious to millions of insurance seekers who live in the three dozen states relying on the federal insurance exchange. For the first time, the administration appealed to people to report their interactions, good or bad, with the exchange, a core element of the 2010 health-care law.
President Obama is expected to address the site’s technical problems — “troubles that he and his team find unacceptable” — at a White House event Monday to highlight the law, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the event has not taken place.
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“I think that there’s no one more frustrated than the president at the difficulty in the website,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The remarks Sunday, and Obama’s expected comments Monday, represent a strategic shift for an administration that has repeatedly refused to say publicly exactly what is wrong with the site or what is being done to fix it.
Administration officials for the first time conceded that the site’s problems extend beyond front-end obstacles, such as with setting up a personal account.
Since the exchange opened, officials at the White House and HHS have insisted that the site’s problems were caused by its popularity — that more people were trying to get on than could be accommodated at once. Even Sunday, the HHS spokesman said the “main driver of the problems is volume.”
Yet insurance companies, consumers and health-policy experts have noticed problems that occur further along in the process of using the exchange. The website sometimes gives inaccurate information about the federal tax credits that will help most people pay for a health plan, they say. And it sometimes erroneously tells low-income people that they are not eligible for Medicaid.
Insurers have complained of getting confusing information about who has signed up, with the exchange generating data that suggest multiple enrollments and cancellations for the same person on the same day.
Communications between the administration and its contractors improved over the weekend as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) began negotiating written agreements with contractors on responsibility and deadlines for the repairs, those people say. They hope to have a repair plan before a congressional hearing set for Thursday.
“The issue right now is between CMS and the White House,” a specialist said Friday before communications improved. “Everybody sits and waits and the meter runs.”
Confidential government documents show that some technical fixes have been made to the federal website, and specialists say the site is slowly improving.
CGI Federal, a unit of the CGI Group, based in Montreal, is responsible for the architecture of major parts of the system but not for its integration. Quality Software Services Inc., or QSSI, a unit of the UnitedHealth Group, developed the identity-management system, another major component that allowed consumers to register.
The identity-management system from QSSI, which also taps into government databases to retrieve users’ personal information, was a particular source of trouble when the exchange opened. Change orders show that on Oct. 4 — after millions of people had been trapped in technological loops trying merely to log in — the government asked CGI to help it devise a new identity-management system to replace the one provided by QSSI. But specialists said that approach was abandoned as too risky. Ultimately it was decided to fix the current identity system.
According to one specialist, the website contains about 500 million lines of software code. By comparison, a large bank’s computer system is typically about one-fifth that size. Because of its interaction with other government databases, the website’s problems also became their issue.
With such issues arising, the administration is facing intensifying pressure to be more forthcoming. On the practical side, because problems with HealthCare.gov have lingered, no one knows whether the website’s troubles might be deterring Americans who need insurance. That raises concerns that the frustrations may discourage healthy people, who may be less motivated to sign up in the first place. Because they need relatively little medical treatment, these healthy enrollees are crucial to ensuring the financial stability of the insurance marketplace.
The administration also is eager to rebuff fresh assaults by congressional Republicans, who have been trying to undermine Obama’s signature health-care law since its enactment in 2010. The GOP’s last major strategy — forcing the recent government shutdown in an effort to unravel the law — failed. With the government back open, Republicans are trying to make the case that the exchange’s technical defects are evidence that the law is misguided. On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to conduct a hearing on the exchange’s rocky debut. Republicans are calling for the ouster of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has indicated that she has a schedule conflict that prevents her from appearing at the hearing. HHS officials say they are trying to cooperate with the committee in other, unspecified ways.
Includes material from The New York Times