By Roberta Rampton and Sharon Begley
WASHINGTON, Nov 30 (Reuters) - A crucial weekend for the
troubled website that is the backbone of President Barack
Obama's healthcare overhaul appears to be off to a shaky start,
as the U.S. government took the HealthCare.gov site offline for
an unusually long maintenance period into Saturday morning.
Just hours before the Obama administration's self-imposed
deadline to get the insurance shopping website working for the
"vast majority" of its users by Saturday, the Centers for
Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it was
taking down the website for an 11-hour period that would end at
8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) on Saturday.
It was unclear whether the extended shutdown of the website
- about seven hours longer than on typical day - represented a
major setback to the Obama administration's high-stakes scramble
to fix the portal that it hopes eventually will enroll about 7
million uninsured and under-insured Americans under the Patient
Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
At the very least, the shutdown suggested that nine weeks
after the website's disastrous launch on Oct. 1 prevented most
applicants from enrolling in coverage and ignited one of the
biggest crises of Obama's administration, U.S. officials are
nervous over whether Americans will see enough progress in the
website to be satisfied.
For the administration and its Democratic allies, the stakes
The healthcare overhaul is Obama's signature domestic
achievement, a program designed to extend coverage to millions
of Americans and reduce healthcare costs. To work, the program
must enroll millions of young, healthy consumers whose
participation in the new insurance exchanges is key to keeping
costs in check.
After weeks of round-the-clock upgrades of software and
hardware, Obama officials said they were poised to successfully
double its capacity by this weekend, to be able to handle 50,000
insurance shoppers at one time.
But if the website does not work for the "vast majority" of
visitors this weekend as the administration has promised,
uninsured Americans from 36 states could face problems getting
coverage by an initial Dec. 23 deadline.
It also could create ripples that extend to the 2014
elections when control of the U.S. House of Representatives (now
controlled by Republicans) and the Senate (now led by Democrats)
will be up for grabs.
Obama's fellow Democrats who are up for re-election in
Congress already have shown signs of distancing themselves from
the president and his healthcare program. If the website does
not show significant improvement soon, some Democrats -
particularly the dozen U.S. senators who are from states led by
conservative Republicans and who are up for re-election next
year - might call for extending Obamacare's final March 31
enrollment deadline for 2014.
That would delay the fines that are mandated by the law for
those who do not have insurance by that date, a scenario that
insurers say would destabilize the market. It also would fuel
Republicans' arguments that Obamacare, and its website, are
fatally flawed and should be scrapped.
In broader political terms, the website's immediate success
has become vital to Obama's credibility, which polls indicate
has been tarnished by the site's problems as well as Obama's
admission that he overreached in promising that everyone who
liked their healthcare plan would be able to keep it under the
Obama has been forced to apologize for oversimplying how the
law would affect certain Americans, and has acknowledged being
embarrassed and frustrated by the website's failures. Recent
polls have shown that Obama's approval ratings are at the lowest
point of his presidency.
"It is a lot harder to reboot public trust than it is to
reboot software," said David Brailer, chief executive of the
Health Evolution Partners private equity firm and a former
health official in George W. Bush's administration.
"But the good thing about when you're down is that usually,
you got nowhere to go but up," Obama said in an interview that
aired on Friday on ABC.
IS IT FIXED? HARD TO TELL
Several technology specialists told Reuters that it will be
difficult to independently assess on Saturday whether the
HealthCare.gov site has met the administration's goals of
functioning for most users most of the time, including handling
50,000 users at once.
"There won't be anything you can tell from the outside,"
said Jonathan Wu, an information technology expert and
co-founder of the consumer financial website ValuePenguin.
When the site opened for enrollment on Oct. 1, many users
found that they could not complete the simple task of creating
an account. Now, the website is functioning better but any
remaining problems lie much deeper within the site, Wu said in
Eleventh-hour checks were not encouraging, said Matthew
Hancock, an independent expert in software design who said he
could tell within hours of the site's launch that its problems
were the results of poor system design and bugs, rather than the
heavy traffic that the administration blamed initially.
"I have tested the site every several days trying to buy a
health insurance plan, but haven't been able to," Hancock said.
"I think the issues the site faces now are more complex to
diagnose from the front end, whereas before the site was
immediately failing and returning error details," he said.
Questions also remain about the website's ability to direct
payments to private insurance companies when consumers enroll in
their plans. Portions of the system handling those functions are
still being built, officials say.
"The real tests are: Were my premium payment and subsidy
accurately calculated? Am I getting the coverage I signed up
for? If my income situation changes, will the reconciliation
occur in a timely fashion?" said Rick Howard, a research
director at technology consultant Gartner.
A DATE AND A NUMBER
Heading into this weekend, administration officials tasked
with rescuing Obamacare showed signs of confidence that the
series of fixes by tech specialists would work.
The officials gave a "virtual tour" of what they had branded
the "tech surge" to a group of White House reporters.
The White House also invited a group of IT specialists to
tour the website's "command center," where an engineer on unpaid
leave from Google Inc directs disparate contractors and
monitors their progress.
It was a convincing show that the team had the crisis under
control, said John Engates, chief technology officer at
Rackspace, a web hosting firm in San Antonio, who participated.
Engates, who had been publicly critical of the launch, said
he felt it was likely the website would be able to handle 50,000
concurrent users on Saturday, although he did not know for sure.
"Whenever you have a date and a number, you need to be
pretty sure that you can hit that date and that number," Engates
"It's just another loss of confidence if you don't make it."
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