(Bloomberg) — The Obama administration said it has reached out to the “best and brightest” from inside and outside of government to get its health insurance exchange up to speed, even as it faces another missed deadline for the rollout.
The promised debut this week of a Spanish-language version of its website is uncertain after an administration spokeswoman said no date had yet been set for it. While repairs have allowed more consumers to register as the exchange enters its fourth week, technical flaws still slow their ability to enroll in health plans or gain from add-ons like the Latino site, targeted at 10 million people eligible for coverage or subsidies.
If a “tech surge” announced yesterday by the administration can’t turn things around quickly, the six-month enrollment period that ends March 31 may have to be extended, independent consultants and analysts say — an idea dismissed as premature by backers of the health care system overhaul. Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for firings over the delays.
“Somebody ought to be accountable for this mess, and if the president isn’t going to resign, it’s up to him to figure out who should,” U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said in an e-mail.
The exchanges, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are designed to sell insurance plans to people who can’t get coverage through their employers or government programs. The federal site that debuted Oct. 1 serves 36 states that declined to create exchanges under the Affordable Care Act of 2010, including Texas and Florida.
About 8.6 million people visited in the first week amid software problems that led to long waits to check out insurance offerings. At one point, the site posted error messages in at least 24 states. Over the same time period, the 14 exchange websites run independently by states saw fewer problems.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at 11:25 a.m. today in Washington to address the technology “troubles that he and his team find unacceptable,” according to a White House statement. His administration yesterday promised a “tech surge” to fix the exchange, in a blog post that said the site “has not lived up to the expectations of the American people.”
“Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve healthcare.gov,” according to the posting on the health agency’s website.
“While the administration’s ‘tech surge’ makes a good sound bite, it’s woefully short on detail,” said Julia Lawless, a spokeswoman for Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, in an e-mail. “Who are they bringing in? When can Americans expect real results?”
While the HHS blog post included no details about who was now involved, Todd Y. Park, the president’s chief technology officer, has been advising the HHS officials who planned and built the site since its debut, according to Jason Young, the agency’s assistant secretary for public affairs. Park is a co-founder of medical technology companies Athenahealth Inc. and Castlight Health Inc.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has ultimate responsibility for healthcare.gov.
The HHS blog said that despite the technology limitations almost 500,000 Americans have now submitted applications for health insurance through all 51 exchanges. The government has promised to release enrollment data from healthcare.gov monthly, starting in mid-November.
An independent monitor of websites said that while traffic to the federal exchange site dropped by more than half “as curiosity faded” in its second week of operation, more people were able to complete applications. About half of those who tried to register were successful in week two, said Matt Pace, a senior vice president at Millward Brown Digital, a subsidiary of WPP Plc’s Kantar Media.
About 368,000 people began eligibility applications on the federal website, and 47,000 were completed — 88% and 31% better than week one, Pace wrote. The goal set by the administration for all exchanges is to sign up 7 million people by the end of March, the enrollment cutoff.
Technology experts and people familiar with the operation point to an array of possible reasons why the 14 independent state exchanges are largely working better than healthcare.gov.
First, the states have drawn $3.8 billion from the U.S. to build their sites, including more than $900 million for California alone, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Menlo Park, California-based nonprofit. The federal government spent $393 million on its site through March, the latest accounting by CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner.
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