WASHINGTON (AP) - Nearly a month into the dysfunctional rollout, the Obama administration acknowledged the wide extent of its health care website's problems Friday and abruptly turned to a private company to oversee urgent fixes. Setting a new timetable, officials said most issues will be repaired by the end of November.
It will take a lot of work, but "healthcare.gov is fixable," declared Jeffrey Zients, a management consultant brought in by the White House. By the end of next month, he said, there will be many fewer signup problems such as computer screen freezes - but he stopped short of saying problems will completely disappear.
The administration also said it is promoting one of the website contractors, a subsidiary of the nation's largest health insurance company, to take on the role of "general contractor" shepherding the fixes.
Jeffrey Zients, a management consultant, will help correct problems with the new federal health care website. The White House says Zients will assist a team working around the clock on the site, healthcare.gov.
Quality Software Services Inc. - owned by a unit of UnitedHealth Group- was responsible for two components of the government's online insurance system. One is the data hub, a linchpin that works relatively well, and the other is an accounts registration feature that initially froze and caused many problems.
Zients reported that his review found dozens of issues across the entire system, which is made up of layers of components meant to interact in real time with consumers, government agencies and insurance company computers.
Healthcare.gov was supposed to be the online portal for uninsured Americans to get coverage under President Barack Obama's health care law. Envisioned as the equivalent of Amazon.com for health insurance, it became a huge bottleneck immediately upon launch Oct. 1. A major embarrassment for the administration, it is likely to end up as a case study of how government technology programs can go awry.
The briefing from Zients came a day after executives of QSSI and the other major contractor, CGI Federal, told Congress that the government didn't fully test the system and ordered up last-minute changes that contributed to logjams. Next week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill.
Visiting a community health center on Friday in Austin, Texas, Sebelius said that "in an ideal world there would have been a lot more testing." But she added that her department had little flexibility to postpone the launch against the backdrop of Washington's unforgiving politics. Republicans hoping, in the words of their TV ads, to "defund Obamacare" precipitated a government shutdown.
Some Republicans have been calling for her ouster, and she addressed that issue a day earlier in Phoenix. She said, "The majority of people calling for me to resign I would say are people who I don't work for and do not want this program to work in the first place." She added, "I have had frequent conversations with the president, and I've admitted to him that my role is to get the program up and running and we will do just that."
Zients gave some new details about the extent of the problems, but administration officials are still refusing to release any numbers on how many people have successfully enrolled. Although 700,000 have applied for coverage through the new online markets, it's believed only a fraction of that number actually have managed to sign up. Prior to the website going live, an administration estimate projected nearly 500,000 people would sign up in October alone.
The marketplaces are the gateway to obtaining health insurance under the new health care law, which requires most Americans to have coverage by Jan. 1. Middle-class people who don't have insurance on the job can purchase private plans with new tax credits to make the premiums more affordable. Low-income people will be steered to an expanded version of Medicaid in states that agree to extend the safety net program.