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Health law glitches keep debate on the boil


October 08. 2013 12:04AM
RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The glitch-ridden rollout of President Barack Obama’s health care law has opponents crowing: “Told you so!” and insisting it should be paused, if not scrapped.


But others, including insurance companies, say there’s still enough time to fix the online enrollment system before uninsured Americans start getting coverage on Jan. 1.


After emergency repairs over the weekend, consumers in different parts of the country Monday continued to report delays on healthcare.gov, as well as problems setting up security questions for their accounts. The administration says the site’s crowded electronic “waiting room” is thinning out. Still, officials announced it will be down again for a few hours starting at 1 a.m. Tuesday for more upgrades and fixes.


Despite the confusion, the insurance industry has held off public criticism. Alarmed that only a trickle of customers got through initially, insurers now say enrollments are starting to come in and they expect things to improve.


The last major federal health care launch — the Medicare prescription program in 2006 — also had big startup problems. Government leaders who oversaw it say things could look very different in a couple of months for Obama’s law if the administration manages to get a grip on the situation.


“There wasn’t enough time for testing, so the dress rehearsal became opening night,” said Michael Leavitt, who as President George W. Bush’s top health official, oversaw the troubled debut of the Medicare drug plan.


Obama’s law — also known as the Affordable Care Act — was designed to provide insurance for people who don’t have access to coverage on the job. Middle-class uninsured people can buy a government-subsidized private plan, while the poor and near-poor will be steered to Medicaid in states that agree to expand the safety net program. The online insurance markets were envisioned as the 21st century portal to an overhauled system.


But when the health care markets went live last week, millions of curious Americans overwhelmed federal and state insurance websites. The level of interest could be read as a good sign, since polls just prior to the launch found most uninsured people unaware it was coming. Yet for many, the consumer experience was like a Saturday morning spent twiddling thumbs at the local motor vehicle department.


Some prospective customers got a screen that told them to wait — and nothing happened, for hours. Others started to sign up and got trapped by a recurring glitch when they tried to set up security questions to protect their personal accounts. Some who got through all the way to the end found their sessions had timed out, and they had to start over.


The federal website that serves 36 states wasn’t the only problem; several states also had a rough launch. And Republicans opposed to “Obamacare” were willing to shut down the government in an effort to stop it.


Technology experts say the problems are probably due to a combination of factors: unexpectedly high demand, as well as possible software flaws and shortcomings in design. Sometimes a high volume of users can expose software problems that went undetected in testing, they said.


The administration has mainly blamed high volume. The Health and Human Services department says it is adding servers —workhorse computer equipment — to the system to handle the volume of user requests.




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