(Bloomberg) — Rollout of the U.S. health care overhaul is facing mounting delays as a key computer service that failed Sunday remained dormant, three days after the Obama administration said its insurance exchange website would be working smoothly in about a month.
The data services hub that supplies tax information to websites run by the federal government and 14 states to sell medical coverage, was unavailable following a malfunction at the hosting center. The center, operated by Verizon Communications unit Terremark, lost connectivity after workers tried to replace a broken networking component, said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department.
The Obama administration has been under fire since Oct. 1 for persistent problems with computer systems assembled to help people compare and enroll in insurance plans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Just three days ago, Jeffrey Zients, the adviser brought in to help fix the flaws, said “the data hub, we believe, functions relatively smoothly.”
“Our engineers have been working with HHS and other technology companies to identify and address the root cause of the issue,” said Verizon Spokesman Jeffrey Nelson. “It will be fixed as quickly as possible.”
Nelson declined to say when the breakdown occurred. Peters of HHS also didn’t say when the failure happened or how long it would take to repair. Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. health secretary, spoke with Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam Sunday, her agency said in a statement.
President Barack Obama last week appointed Zients, his incoming chief economic adviser, to first advise the health department on fixes to the system before taking on his other job. The federal site, which Zients declared “fixable,” serves consumers in 36 states, including Texas and Florida.
Websites run by most of the 14 states that chose to build their own have run better than the federal site, though all of the sites rely to some extent on the data hub, which was built by UnitedHealth Group’s Quality Software Services unit.
A notice on the federal website at 11:55 a.m. Monday told visitors that the system was down.
“We are experiencing technical difficulties and hope to have them resolved soon,” the notice said. “Please try again later. In a hurry? You might be able to apply faster at our Marketplace call center. Call 1-800-318-2596 to talk with one of our trained representatives about applying over the phone.”
Zients said Oct. 25 that the federal website, called healthcare.gov, will function smoothly for most customers by the end of November and named UnitedHealth’s QSSI as the system’s lead contractor, taking over a decision-making role formerly filled by officials at the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Matt Stearns, a spokesman for Minnetonka, Minn.-based UnitedHealth, didn’t respond yesterday to an e-mail asking about the failure.
Since opening Oct. 1, the federal exchange has been plagued by delays, error messages and hang-ups that have prevented many customers from completing applications. Zients’s statement that there will be a monthlong wait to repair the federal exchange set off new calls for the president to ease a key deadline for consumers to sign up.
Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who voted for the health law in 2010, is among 10 Democratic U.S. senators who wrote the administration to ask that the six-month enrollment period be lengthened. The call for the delay is linked to provisions in the law that require all health plans to be compliant by January with new regulations, including a prohibition against charging sick people more than healthy customers. Plans must also provide expanded benefits including free preventative care.
If the exchange website remains troubled until the beginning of December, consumers who wait will have less than a month to change their health coverage. The enrollment deadline to have coverage effective Jan. 1 is Dec. 15. Insurers this month began sending out notices that they are canceling current plans, forcing customers to sign up for new plans compliant with the health law.
Consumers can use the websites to sign up for new coverage, when they work, or call telephone services or fill out paper applications. People facing cancellation may be able to enroll in new plans from their current carriers, which may cost more unless the customers qualify for government subsidies.
Connecticut’s independent state exchange, known as Access Health CT, notified consumers in the early evening that their site would be partially disabled.
“Customers will not be able to access Remote Identity Proofing, Social Security Administration or Advanced Premium Tax Credits also referred to as subsidies,” wrote Kathleen Tallarita, a spokeswoman for the state site, in a statement. “As a result, consumers will not be able to complete the sign up process for Medicaid or Advanced Premium Tax Credit determinations.”
The tax credits reduce the cost of insurance for anyone earning less than about four times the poverty level, or about $94,000 for a family of four.
Connecticut consumers can continue to create accounts as well as shop anonymously and compare prices for plans, Tallarita said.
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