WASHINGTON — There won't be a magic moment, but the Obama administration's much-maligned health insurance website should be able to weather an expected year-end crush of customers, officials asserted Friday.
A combination of software fixes, design changes, added hardware and new wiggle room should provide the right combination to finally deliver a workable website, White House troubleshooter Jeffrey Zients said in an upbeat assessment. Zients is a management consultant parachuted in by the White House to extricate President Barack Obama from a technology debacle that has sent his poll ratings into a nose dive.
"We think this gives us the capacity we need to reach everybody we need to reach across this period of time," said Zients.
The added leeway comes in the form of an extra eight days this year for consumers to sign up and still get insurance by Jan. 1. A previous Dec. 15 deadline was stretched to Dec. 23. Policyholders must pay their premiums by Dec. 31.
More time could prevent some people from having a break in coverage on account of the balky enrollment website. That's critical for those losing current individual policies that don't measure up under the law, and also for high-risk patients in a small federal insurance program that ends this year.
For the insurance industry, the announcement only complicated the balancing act. Every week a new edict from the administration sends the companies scrambling. A spokesman said it's going to create difficulties.
"It makes it more challenging to process enrollments in time for coverage to begin on Jan. 1," said Robert Zirkelbach, of the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans. "Ultimately it will depend on how many people enroll in those last few days." He underscored that consumers also need to pay their premiums on time.
Other deadlines could also slip. Asked if open enrollment would be extended beyond Mar. 31, 2014, administration spokeswoman Julie Bataille hedged, "not at this point." Bataille is communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is also in charge of administering Obama's health care law.
The Affordable Care Act covers the uninsured through a combination of subsidized private plans and expanded Medicaid. Consumers were supposed to be able to apply and enroll online. But the federal HealthCare.gov website serving 36 states froze up the very day it launched, and several states running their own sites have also experienced technology troubles. Fewer than 27,000 people were able to sign up during October in the federally-administered states, and another 79,000 in state-run programs.
Zients had set a Nov. 30 goal to have the federal site "working smoothly for the vast majority of users." He now says work will continue beyond that, but the website is far improved.
"There will not be a magic moment around the end of the month when our work will be complete," he said. There was one significant outage this week, lasting several hours on Wednesday.
The site is now able to handle about 25,000 users at the same time. Zients said upgrades during downtime this weekend will put it on track to handle 50,000 simultaneous users, close to the level originally envisioned. It translates to about 800,000 visits a day.
On top of that, technicians are putting a system in place to handle spikes in demand. Consumers will get an email telling them when they can come back.
Overall, the site is faster, more reliable and easier to navigate, said Zients.
Separately, the administration also announced a schedule in next year's open enrollment season. It will start on Nov. 15, 2014, a month later than originally scheduled, and finish on Jan. 15, 2015, about five weeks later originally scheduled. The midterm congressional elections are Nov. 4, and congressional Republicans accused the administration of shifting the dates for political reasons, to hide a spike in 2015 premiums.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called it a "cynical political move" that means "if premiums go through the roof in the first year of Obamacare, no one will know about it until after the election."
But if next year follows the same pattern as this year, there should be plenty of information available about 2015 premiums before the election. That's because many states post the data publicly. "We'll definitely start seeing some premiums earlier from state insurance departments," said Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
The administration says the change is to allow insurers more time to prepare and submit premiums.
However, there is one possible way that Democrats could benefit politically. If lighting strikes twice and the website sputters again during the next open enrollment season, that second act would not take place until after the voting is done.