Washington state’s health-insurance exchange has been plagued by performance issues so serious that the website has been down for repairs since Tuesday and service is not expected to be restored until Monday at the earliest.
This latest round of glitches comes just as officials expect growing numbers of consumers to be signing up for insurance plans on the Washington Healthplanfinder site before a Dec. 23 enrollment deadline that would ensure coverage by Jan. 1.
“We are very cognizant of the impact of not having availability of the website this week,” said Michael Marchand, director of communications of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which operates Healthplanfinder.
The site was taken down at 2 p.m. Tuesday when staff noticed performance had deteriorated to the point where consumers sometimes could not successfully enter data and complete applications.
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“You never want to try to troubleshoot while things are up or make significant modifications while there are people in the system because you can’t track anything,” said Marchand.
“There are too many variables in play.”
Curt Kwak, the exchange’s chief information officer, indicated Wednesday that the information-technology staff suspected the root problem stemmed from updates made to the system on Thanksgiving weekend; that problem has not yet been tracked down.
According to Marchand, the site is expected to be back online Monday. He noted that the state’s eligibility system, with which the exchange site needs to communicate, is scheduled to be taken down on Sunday for annual maintenance. That led the exchange team to target Monday.
During the outage, the exchange staff has caught up on other work, Marchand said. “Our call-center staff has literally been able to key in thousands of paper-submitted applications over the past day.”
In addition, he said, other minor snags in the system have been found during troubleshooting.
Marchand said the exchange is aware of timing issues that lie ahead. “This week was slated to be a big week, so this will mean even more volume in the upcoming weeks,” he said.
Marchand added that the exchange is working on contingency plans, consulting with other government agencies about “making sure that those people who need to have health care on Jan. 1 are able to get that.”
Independent consultants say the glitches were not unexpected.
“The short answer is these are not simple systems,” said Rick Howard, research director for the public sector at Gartner, a technology consulting group.
Comparing the attempted launch of the health-exchange site to those of private-sector sites, Howard noted: “Over time, Facebook and Amazon scaled up and introduced new products and new services based on demand and capacity.”
The health exchanges, on the other hand, “went live with a big-bang approach. The big-bang approach was not appropriate and in many cases didn’t work.”
Howard said his group was telling clients it would take more than a year of intensive development before the exchanges would be stable.
“This is the first time the government has really attempted to deploy an e-commerce solution,” he said.
Despite the problems, the Washington exchange is among those that have won praise, especially when contrasted with the federally run exchange, which operates in states that chose not to build their own.
According to the most recent figures, more than 175,000 people have enrolled in health plans or Medicaid through the exchange since it launched Oct. 1.
Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer in Seattle. This story was produced through a partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.