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US HHS says it has reached HealthCare.gov deadline

About 80 percent of website users are now able to complete their insurance applications, officials say

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HealthCare.gov, the troubled insurance-shopping website launched in October by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is now working well for most users, officials said Sunday.

The HHS Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has met a deadline set by officials in President Barack Obama's administration to have the site functioning well for the vast majority of users, said Jeffrey Zients, a former acting director at the White House Office of Management and Budget serving as a management consultant on the repairs to the site.

"HealthCare.gov on Dec. 1 is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1," Zients said during a press briefing Sunday. When it launched, the site had "an unacceptable user experience, marked by very slow response times, inexplicable user error messages and frequent website crashes and user outages," he added.

HealthCare.gov also suffered from management problems, "with slow decision-making and diffuse or unclear accountability," Zients added.

About 80 percent of shoppers who have the correct documentation are now able to complete their applications for insurance on the site, said Julie Bataille, communications director for CMS. That number is up from about 30 percent in the first weeks after the site's launch on Oct.1, she said.

Many of the remaining 20 percent will choose to complete their insurance applications over the phone or with in-person advisors because they are more comfortable using those methods instead of the website, she said.

The HealthCare.gov team will continue to look for ways to improve the site, she said.

Since mid-October, a tech team has made more than 400 bug fixes and software improvements to the site, including about 50 over the past weekend, Zients said.

The team has installed dedicated hardware to improve the registration throughput and the site's core database, according to a report issued by CMS Sunday. The hardware upgrades have repaired "the system's on-ramp," Zients said.

The website's up time for the past week was higher than 95 percent, compared to just 43 percent for the week ending Nov. 2, the report said. The site's up time has been 92 percent or higher for the past three weeks. A rapid response team has been able to fix most major problems within an hour during recent weeks, Zients said.

"We needed to get the team working with the speed and urgency of a high-performing private-sector tech company," he said.

In addition, the page response time has dropped from an average of eight seconds late October to less than one second now, and the page error rate has dropped from 6 percent in October to .75 percent now, the report said.

The website should now be able to handle 50,000 concurrent users, Zients said. At peak times when the traffic exceeds that number, the site now has a queuing system that allows users to receive an email telling them when to come back for a faster experience.

HealthCare.gov was a central piece of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. The law's goal is to allow U.S. residents without health insurance coverage to purchase inexpensive plans through the site or by other means.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.



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