White House says 'Obamacare' website will be fixed by end of November

Reuters

By Caroline Humer and Sharon Begley

Oct 25 (Reuters) - The website for Americans to buyinsurance under President Barack Obama's healthcare law shouldbe working smoothly for most users by the end of November, aWhite House official assigned to fix Healthcare.gov said onFriday.

Jeffrey Zients also told reporters in a conference call thatQuality Software Services Inc, or QSSI, will now serve as ageneral contractor to oversee repairs to the glitch-riddenwebsite.

The administration has not had a technology companyoverseeing the entire project. Instead, the government decidedearly on that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,part of the Department of Health and Human Services, would serveas the system integrator.

Republican critics and technology experts have questionedwhether the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had theexperience and know-how to handle such a complex task.

Online insurance exchanges launched on Oct. 1 under the 2010Affordable Care Act, often called "Obamacare," to offer healthinsurance plans to millions of uninsured people in the UnitedStates. But many have experienced error messages and long waitsin trying to sign on to Healthcare.gov, which has become apolitical embarrassment for Obama.

"By the end of November, the vast majority of consumers willbe able to successfully and smoothly enroll throughHealthcare.gov," Zients said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whois battling some Republicans' calls for her resignation, said onFriday that the website has clearly not lived up to its fullpotential. But she said it is not beyond hope.

"We want to dispel the notion that the website is fatallyflawed. It can be fixed and it will be fixed," said Sebelius,speaking at forum on enrollment in the new national healthcaresystem in San Antonio, Texas.

The White House said last week that Obama still has "fullconfidence" in Sebelius, whose department is responsible forimplementing the law.

Sebelius on Friday said calls for her resignation are comingfrom lawmakers who "unfortunately have been ferociously opposedto the expansion of healthcare."

QSSI, a unit of health insurer UnitedHealth Group,already has a technology contract related to the website andtestified on Thursday to a congressional panel about problemswith the system.

QSSI produced the federal data hub and a software tool toregister consumers before allowing them to browse, a requirementthat caused early logjam problems.

However, Andrew Slavitt, executive vice president withQSSI's parent, testified that it was the administration that didnot fully test the website until the last minute and alsointroduced the account creation feature just 10 days beforelaunch.

'A LOT OF PROBLEMS'

Zients said he had brought in technology experts toestablish the problems with the website and to prioritize therepairs.

"It will take a lot of work and there are a lot of problemsthat will need to be addressed, but the bottom line is that itis fixable," he said.

He said experts had identified "dozens of items" to be fixedin terms of both performance and functionality, and that aproblem related to communications with insurers was on the topof the list. He did not provide further details about the natureof the glitches.

Earlier this week, the government told insurers in a meetingthat it was working to fix data transmission problems withapplications and also with the technology that can allowinsurers to directly enroll consumers in exchange plans.

The government expects about 7 million people to enroll forindividual insurance in 2014, many of whom are expected toreceive government subsidies. Consumers must enroll bymid-December to have insurance on Jan. 1, and those who have notenrolled by the end of March 2014 will have to pay a penaltylaid out in the Affordable Care Act.

About 90 percent of people who try to create accounts areable to do so, but the ability to complete an application hasbeen "volatile," Zients said. The government said that about700,000 Obamacare applications had been filled out across thecountry but has not provided enrollment figures.

The federal government is running the website for 36 stateswhile 14 other states have built their own exchanges to sellinsurance policies under Obamacare. Some state sites have alsohad technology issues.

Republican lawmakers, long opposed to Obamacare, havepounced on the rocky rollout to start multiple investigationsinto the administration's missteps and the role of contractors.

Some Democrats have also criticized the administration andcalled for extending the open-enrollment period beyond theexisting March 31 deadline.

Sebelius on Friday dismissed the idea of extending theenrollment period.

Two committees in the Republican-controlled House ofRepresentatives will hold hearings next week, one with Sebeliusand the other with Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of theCenters for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

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