It's two steps forward and one step back for the technical teams working on the federally facilitated Health Insurance Marketplace at healthcare.gov, according to an operational update provided this afternoon by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency overseeing the website.
We'll get to those setbacks in a moment, but first consumers should know that they will not be able to determine their eligibility for premium subsidies until Tuesday because the Internal Revenue Service is performing "routine maintenance'' on its verification service, said Julie Bataille, CMS press director, beginning Saturday night and concluding Tuesday morning on Nov. 12.
Bataille said the IRS's verification service is used by healthcare.gov's "data hub," a central routing device that communicates with various federal agencies that verify consumers' information, such as income and U.S. citizenship status.
However, consumers will be able to access healthcare.gov to create an account, complete an application and shop for plans, Bataille said.
"But they will not immediately receive an eligibility determination,'' she said. Instead, consumers will have to save their application and submit it on Tuesday.
Also on the conference call Friday was management expert Jeff Zients, who has been appointed “Tech Czar” in the effort to fix the problems with healthcare.gov.
Zients told reporters that, "We made progress this week, though again hit roadblocks that impacted the user experience and slowed us down. The system was slow and sporadic for many users for significant periods of time during the week.''
Zients explained that the technical team has added hardware capacity to allow greater numbers of consumers to simultaneously use the website, and that the team also has fixed software to reduce error rates per page views and increase response times.
These repairs are allowing more consumers to get further along the process of creating accounts, applying for subsidies, shopping for plans and enrolling in them -- and exposing new vulnerabilities and problems.
"As we put new fixes in,'' he said, "volume has been increasing -- exposing new storage, capacity and software application issues."
Zients said that during the first few weeks after healthcare.gov launched on Oct. 1, users were waiting on average eight seconds for pages across the website to load.
"Clearly an unacceptable length of time,'' he said.
But this week, he added, the response time for many users has been well below 1 second.
Another problem the technical team has worked on is the error rate, a measure of the frequency on a per-page basis of system timeouts or failures that prevent users from advancing to the next page. Often, these errors result in users receiving error messages.
"A few weeks ago,'' Zients said, "the site page error rate was running over six percent, with many users running into errors.
"Today,'' he said, "the error rate is under 2 percent.''
Zients said he was unhappy with this error rate, and that technical teams are working to further reduce both error rates and response times.
And he reiterated his pledge: "By the end of November, we’ll have the site working smoothly for the vast majority of users.''
Zients said the technical team has divided the website's problems into three "tiers,'' with the top tier being the most critical. He declined to say how many problems were in the top tier, but said the technical team would work on "several dozen" high-priority fixes in the coming weeks.
Zients and Bataille declined to tell reporters about how many users are trying to access healthcare.gov these days, or whether those volumes are as high as the ones experienced during the site's first week, when federal officials reported receiving more than 8 million unique visitors.
Zients and Bataille also declined to say how many consumers had successfully enrolled or purchased a health plan through the marketplace, or exchange.
But Bataille promised that federal officials will release enrollment data next week.
"We do know that people everyday are actively going online, enrolling, completing the application and then selecting a plan,'' Bataille said. "We are hearing from navigators and others across the country about more and more stories … about consumers enrolling everyday.''
Bataille said that the Obama administration has always expected that enrollment would increase over the course of the six-month open enrollment period that began on Oct. 1.
Zients added that consumers stop at different points of the process, and that hardly anyone creates an account, applies for a subsidy, shops for a plan and then purchases a plan all in one sitting.
However, he acknowledged that the technical problems with healthcare.gov have most certainly kept consumers from using the website to its fullest potential.
"The actual percent that are enrolling does have something to do with technology,'' he said, "but it also has to do with consumer buying behavior.''
Asked about the problems underlying healthcare.gov, Zients said: "I think it’s the complexity of the system, coupled with the compressed time line.''
But, he added, "We're working 24-7 to improve the user experience each and every week.''