WASHINGTON—Insurers and some states are continuing to look for ways to bypass the balky technology underpinning the health-care law despite the Obama administration's claim Sunday that it had made "dramatic progress" in fixing the federal insurance website.
Federal officials said they had largely succeeded in repairing parts of the site that had most snarled users in the two months since its troubled launch, but acknowledged they only had begun to make headway on the biggest underlying problems: the system's ability to verify users' identities and accurately transmit enrollment data to insurers.
One of the leading states operating its own exchange is considering ways to decouple itself from the federal infrastructure it relies on to confirm residents' eligibility for federal tax credits. That technology has been affected by planned and unplanned outages.
James Wadleigh, chief information officer of Connecticut's exchange, said he was looking at having a new vendor support identity verification in addition to the federal vendor. He also said he wanted to be able to tap state databases, such as the labor department's, to validate incomes and was seeking a way to prove people were legal residents without depending on U.S. data.
Mr. Wadleigh said he wants Connecticut to be self-reliant and serve its residents even when the federal government has to take down parts of its technology for maintenance. Some other states are watching his effort.
A spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency implementing the health law, said the federal data hub continued to work well and has done so consistently since Oct. 1.
Insurers also are telling the administration they want more help to work around the federal system so they can enroll many customers directly.
The U.S. has begun a pilot program with insurers in three big states—Florida, Ohio and Texas—to identify problems in the current system, in which insurance companies still have to send would-be customers briefly to the HealthCare.gov site to verify their eligibility for financial assistance, where many have become stuck. The government describes the direct-signup effort as a way to give consumers more choice in gaining coverage.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also is trying to develop a formula that could be used by the administration's call centers and other enrollment workers to calculate the value of tax credits for some people with straightforward circumstances, to relieve pressure on the website, said people familiar with the effort.
On Sunday, as a Nov. 30 deadline set by the administration for improvements to the site had passed, CMS issued a report concluding: "We believe we have met the goal of having a system that will work smoothly for the vast majority of users."
Jeffrey Zients, the top administration aide charged with overseeing the effort, told reporters: "The site is now stable and operating at its intended capacity with greatly improved performance."
Two of the main achievements the administration cited—getting HealthCare.gov's response time below one second and reducing the rate at which pages loaded incorrectly to fewer than 1% of the time—had been announced more than a week ago.
The administration also said it had improved the site's stability and had hit its goal of getting the site's capacity to a point where it can handle 50,000 users simultaneously. The administration plans to queue users if that 50,000 capacity is exceeded, generating an email to those users when the site is available again.
Officials expect user volumes to jump in December—ahead of a year-end deadline to register for coverage beginning Jan. 1—and that such volume could exceed the site's current capacity. Millions of Americans are either uninsured or set to lose current insurance and must enroll in a new plan by Dec. 23 to have insurance on Jan. 1. Consumers in 36 states that aren't running their own exchanges must sign up using HealthCare.gov, a federal call center or via a paper application.
The administration's claims of "dramatic progress" were met with some reservation by lawmakers on Sunday, with Democrats suggesting improvement but stopping short of saying the problems had been solved.
"The administration has met the big benchmarks they set out, 50,000 [people on the site] at one time, 800,000 people a day. Look, this is going to take some time before its up and kicking in full gear," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D., Md.), said Sunday on NBC.
Republican lawmakers criticized the rollout of the program. "We all get calls from incredibly distressed citizens who've had their policies canceled, and yet are unable to enroll in a new plan. So I do hope that the efficacy of this is much better today and will improve," said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) on CBS.
A person familiar with the government's repair work said the site was showing greater signs of stability after weekend upgrades. As of early Sunday evening, the site had allowed more than 300,000 people to log in and do business on the site that day, said the person. The number of people using the site was higher as the login count doesn't include people just browsing.
After weeks of worry, the mood in the "war room" where the repair work is ongoing was "good and upbeat" and technicians ended Saturday night with a group high-five, the person said.
Still, such fixes are aimed at making the site look and work better for users, but generally don't address and may even exacerbate problems deeper in the system. Officials signaled Sunday that work was only just starting to address some of the identity-verification issues as well as enrollment data.
Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said work is ongoing and also included efforts to fix a problem preventing customers from retrieving forgotten passwords. She said "it may take several days for consumers to see the results of the improvement." The next steps will be to assist the backlog of users who encountered early problems, she said.
The top lobbyist for the insurance industry said over the weekend the administration hadn't yet been able to guarantee accurate enrollment data was coming out of the site, making it more important for insurers to be able to easily sign up customers themselves. Big insurers want to steer as many consumers as possible to their plans, rather than see them comparison-shop on the federal site.
"In addition to fixing the technical problems with HealthCare.gov, the significant 'back-end' issues must also be resolved to ensure that coverage can begin on January 1, 2014," said Karen Ignagni, the head of the lobby, America's Health Insurance Plans.
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