Health will work smoothly by end of November, government pledges

The troubled federal health insurance website will be fixed by the end of November, giving uninsured Americans two weeks to get signed up in time to have health insurance by the earliest possible date, officials pledged Friday.

One of the main government contractors, QSSI, has been assigned to oversee the fix, says Jeff Zients, the newly appointed chief White House economic adviser who’s been tasked to fix the logjammed website.

“We are confident that by the end of the November, will be smooth for the vast majority of users,” Zients told reporters on a conference call.

“Over the last week we worked with a team of experts to conduct an assessment of the overall state of the site," Zients said. They lent "fresh eyes" to the problems plaguing the site. “The system is getting better,” he added. “There is a lot of work to do but is fixable.”

The website, which was promoted as a kind of for buying health insurance, has been an embarrassment to the Obama administration since it opened Oct. 1. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says she did not know it would be such a disaster.

“I didn't realize it wouldn't be operating optimally before the launch,” she told reporters while on a tour of East Austin Health Center in Austin, Texas, where she watched counselors help people struggling to use the website.

“We knew if we had another six months, we’d probably test further,” Sebelius added.

On Thursday, several contractors, including QSSI, told a House committee that the site wasn’t tested “end to end” until just two weeks before launch. They said they’d have preferred to have had months to test it.

Republicans and Democrats alike have been strongly critical of the site, and Republicans have said they believe the problems reflect weaknesses in the entire health care overhaul called for by the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The administration denies this and says the website, one of the main pillars of the reforms called for under the law, is getting better every day. Eventually the administration hopes 7 million people who currently do not have any health insurance will use the site to buy it. Most people will likely qualify for heavy government subsidies to do so.

The law requires just about everyone to have health insurance of some sort by next year. Most people are covered by insurance provided by an employer; most people over 65 have Medicare. But about 15 percent of Americans have no health insurance at all. Some states are expanding Medicaid, the health insurance plan for people with low incomes, to more adults but many are not.

Zients says 90 percent of people who come to the website now can create an account. But only about three in 10 can get all the way through the application process, he said.

He says he has a "punch list" of items to fix, including software bugs that have prevented the system from operating smoothly.

Zients said QSSI, which made the “data hub” that transmits information from one part of the site to another, would act as a general contractor to oversee the repairs. “It makes sense for a number of reasons,” he said. “They have done a good job already with the federal data hub. They have the skills and expertise to address these problems right now.”

The federal government says about 700,000 people have been able to at least start the sign-up process in the 36 states served by the federal website, as well as in the 14 other states and Washington, D.C., which are operating their own sites. Separately, the Advisory Board Company said 350,896 people had applied on the 15 non-federal exchanges, and 115,060 had managed to actually pick an insurance plan and enroll. 

That includes 37,000 in New York, 35,000 in Washington state and 26,000 in Kentucky.

The Obama administration stressed that people still have plenty of time to sign up.

“People will be able to apply by December 15 in order to get coverage by January 1st,” said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the site.

Bataille also said to expect guidance “soon” from the White House on the last possible day that people can sign up for health insurance next year to avoid the risk of a penalty for not having it. The law allows the Internal Revenue Service to tax people $95 or 1 percent of income if they go three months or more without health insurance next year.

Administration officials say they have always meant for people to have until March 31, the end of open enrollment, to sign up. But it’s possible that because of the way the law is written, people will need to sign up by Feb. 15 in order to have their policies in effect by March 31. Bataille says the White House is sorting this out.