The federal government will take down a critical part of HealthCare.gov, the Obamacare web portal, for a portion of the coming weekend as programmers feverishly work to fix major glitches that are impeding enrollment and marring the debut of the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's health care reform law.
Since HealthCare.gov went live on Oct. 1, visitors have faced widespread and persistent problems accessing the website. The site is supposed to let the uninsured and people who buy their own health insurance directly compare health plans by price and benefits and learn whether they qualify for financial help. The Obama administration has cited higher-than-expected traffic to the site as the cause of the problems, and claims to have made progress during the health insurance exchanges' first four days.
The administration will not allow users to fill out applications for coverage on HealthCare.gov between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. EDT Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings, allowing programmers to write fixes to the website, the Department of Health and Human Services announced late on Friday. This part of the website was down early Friday morning as well, Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the department, disclosed on Twitter after the announcement.
"To make further improvements to the system, we will be taking down the application part of the website for scheduled maintenance during off-peak hours over the weekend. The enhancements we are making will enable more simultaneous users to successfully create an account and move through the application and plan shopping process," reads a press release from the department. "We expect that Monday, less than a week after the marketplace opening, there will be significant improvements in the online consumer experience." The federal Obamacare telephone call center will remain open, the department said.
Washington state has employed a similar approach with its Washington Healthplanfinder in recent days and also claimed progress.
Technological snafus have characterized the rollout of the biggest, most visible aspect of Obama's health overhaul during its first few days. While the enrollment period for 2014 health insurance benefits lasts for six months, continued trouble with a system billed as an easy, one-stop shop could discourage consumers, while handing Obamacare's political opponents evidence that the health care reform program is unworkable.
HealthCare.gov has logged 8.6 million unique visitors since Tuesday, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Two-thirds of those people used the exchange website to shop for health insurance and begin applications, while the rest viewed educational information, the department reported.
The federal government is running health insurance exchanges in more than 30 states with the remainder of states operating their own. HealthCare.gov and some state-run health insurance exchanges, including New York State of Health and Maryland Health Connection, have faced significant difficulties making their websites' features functional. Exchanges in other states, like Kentucky's Kynect, appear to be moving ahead with enrollment comparatively smoothly.
Federal and state officials attribute the technical glitches to high traffic as millions of Americans have attempted to visit the websites -- whether to enroll, window shop or rubberneck. The White House predicted prior to the launch that interest would build over time and downplayed the possibility of a rush during the first week. At the same time, Obama and his lieutenants aggressively promoted the Oct. 1 launch date. On Tuesday, the president encouraged people to visit HealthCare.gov even as the website proved unable to handle the traffic it was already receiving.
The balky system for setting up accounts and logging into HealthCare.gov hasn't prevented some small number of people from applying for health insurance benefits, according the Department of Health and Human Services. The administration won't provide any information about the number of people who have enrolled into health coverage so far, but health insurance companies and a handful of individual customers claim to have made successful navigations of HealthCare.gov this week. Several states operating health insurance exchanges on their own or in partnership with the federal government have reported some enrollment data.
Health insurance consumers -- along with federal and state authorities -- still have time to get past the technological issues, but the window is not unlimited: The open enrollment period runs from Oct. 1 through March 31 and consumers must select a health plan by Dec. 15 to ensure their benefits are in effect on Jan. 1. Nearly every legal U.S. resident is required to obtain health coverage next year or face a tax penalty.
The Obama administration aims to sign up 7 million people for private health insurance for 2014, based on the Congressional Budget Office's projections. An additional 9 million people are expected to enroll into Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program for 2014, the budget agency predicts. By 2016, 25 million fewer people will be uninsured than would have been without Obamacare, according to the CBO.