Patched-up health website lurches forward
Washington - It doesn't rival Amazon and Travelocity, but President Barack Obama's much-maligned health insurance website finally seems to be working reasonably well most of the time.
Still, consumers are well-advised to verify, not just trust.
More than 3.7 million people visited HealthCare.gov this week - and it didn't crash, administration spokeswoman Julie Bataille deadpanned Friday on a call with reporters.
Officials say 29,000 people enrolled the first two days of the week, exceeding total signups for the 36 states served by the federal site during October, the month of its problem-plagued launch.
Online Spanish-language signups, delayed because of initial problems, will finally go live this weekend in a "soft launch" to tease out any lurking glitches. Consumers around the country will be able to use the new feature at CuidadoDeSalud.gov. A promotional campaign in Spanish will follow.
Overall, work has shifted from zapping technical gremlins that frustrated consumers to cleaning up garbled enrollment files that the system has been delivering to insurers.
"The new process put in place this week is making a difference," acknowledged Karen Ignagni, head of the largest industry group, America's Health Insurance Plans. "The enrollment files are getting better, but there is more work to be done to ensure consumers are covered."
While not calling it an "error rate," Bataille says mistakes on those files are now affecting 1 in 10 transactions with insurers, down from an estimated 25 percent. She still recommends that consumers verify enrollment with their insurer, and - importantly- pay their first month's premium by Dec. 31.
The web is now the gateway to subsidized private health insurance for people who don't have job-based coverage. Along with the federal site, 14 states and Washington, D.C., are running their own. As Obama invites consumers back to take a second look, here are some of the changes you can expect:
Speed and availability
Independent testers question the blazing Internet speeds claimed by techies at the Health and Human Services Department, and some of the state websites, but confirm there's been noticeable progress.
"The trend is in the right direction ... but there are still things they can do to make the user experience better," said Michael Smith, a vice president of engineering at Compuware Corp., which helps companies monitor the technical performance of their websites.
As of Friday morning, the number of states where consumers are experiencing unacceptably long wait times had been cut to 9, down from 26 states in late October. Conversely, Compuware now rates 17 states as "acceptable," up from just six in October.
Compuware defines "unacceptable" as more than 8 seconds average response time to load the home page. The government claims a response time of less than 1 second. But Smith says that is likely being measured from computers with fast Internet connections and doesn't account for the experience of consumers with less than ideal access, which is incorporated in his company's testing.
Compuware says availability - a measure of consumers' success accessing the site - is up to 98 percent, close to the standard for commercial websites. HealthCare.gov is being measured against the standard for health care industry sites.
Many consumers were puzzled and frustrated when the federal website went live because it would not let them browse health plans without first setting up an account. That's the opposite of how e-commerce generally works. Most websites ask consumers to open an account after they're ready to purchase.
The flaw drove many people to an accounts creation page that turned out to be riddled with bugs and contributed to the system's early woes.
On Monday, HHS announced the deployment of a window-shopping function that lets prospective customers see plans and prices in their area, including previously unavailable details such as deductibles and cost-sharing, as well as provider networks.
People who got stuck in the system can now zap away their old applications and start over.
To do that, you log into your account, select the application in progress and hit "remove."
You have to follow that by closing and reopening your web browser. Then you log back in and start a new application.
The reset process may not be entirely foolproof because HHS advises consumers to reach out to the call center at 1-800-318-2596 if they have trouble.
To help stave off problems during periods of high user volume, the website now has a queuing system. Consumers can request email notifications of when is a good time to come back. The feature kicked in this week as people flooded back to check out the revamped website.
The site can now handle 50,000 simultaneous users. Each visitor spends an average of 20 to 30 minutes on the site.
In theory, the site will support more than 800,000 consumer visits a day.
The big spikes in traffic are still to come. Expect that to happen after the middle of this month, since Dec. 23 is the last day that people can apply for coverage that will take effect Jan. 1. Even heavier volume is likely toward the end of open enrollment March 31, as procrastinators jump in.
Still, reaching the White House goal of 7 million sign-ups seems like a tall order. The government initially projected that 1.2 million people would have enrolled by the end of November, and the actual number is likely to be only a fraction of that.
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