WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Sunday that it has enlisted experts from across the government and from private companies to help rewrite computer code and make other improvements to the online health insurance marketplace, which has been plagued by technical defects that have stymied many consumers since it opened nearly three weeks ago.
The team has come up with new ways of figuring out which parts of the federal website, HealthCare.gov, are balking and has been taking it offline for rigorous overnight tests, said a Health and Human Services Department spokesman.
“Unfortunately, the experience on HealthCare.gov has been frustrating for many Americans,” HHS officials said in a blog post Sunday afternoon, acknowledging what has been obvious to millions of insurance seekers who live in the three dozen states relying on the federal insurance exchange. For the first time, the administration appealed to people to report their interactions, good or bad, with the exchange, a core element of the 2010 health care law.
President Barack Obama was expected to address the site’s technical problems — “troubles that he and his team find unacceptable” — at a White House event Monday to highlight the law, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the event had not taken place.
“I think that there’s no one more frustrated than the president at the difficulty in the website,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.
The remarks the same day, and Obama’s expected comments Monday, represent a strategic shift for an administration that has repeatedly refused to say publicly exactly what is wrong with the site or what is being done to fix it. The new tack offers a bit more information while allowing officials to strike a sympathetic tone toward consumers exasperated by their experiences.
Even now, administration officials are declining to disclose many details about the debugging effort. They will not say how many experts — whom they describe as “the best and the brightest” — are on the team, when the team began its work or how soon the site’s flaws might be corrected. Still, in talking about the repairs, administration officials for the first time conceded that the site’s problems extend beyond well-publicized front-end obstacles, such as with setting up a personal account.
Since the exchange opened, officials at the White House and HHS have insisted that the site’s problems were caused by its popularity — that more people were trying to get on than could be accommodated at once. Even Sunday, the HHS spokesman said the “main driver of the problems is volume.”
Yet insurance companies, consumers and health policy experts have noticed problems that occur further along in the process of using the exchange. The website sometimes gives inaccurate information about the federal tax credits that will help most people pay for a health plan, they say. And it sometimes erroneously tells low-income people that they are not eligible for Medicaid.
No one knows whether the website’s troubles might be deterring Americans who need insurance. That raises concerns that the frustrations may discourage healthy people, who may be less motivated to sign up in the first place. Because they need relatively little medical treatment, they are crucial to ensuring the financial stability of the insurance marketplace.
There is political pressure, as well. The administration is eager to rebuff fresh assaults by congressional Republicans, who have been trying to undermine Obama’s signature health care law since its enactment in 2010, and plan to continue that effort.