The Obamacare Website Could Stay Broken for a While

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Photo: Joe Raedle/2013 Getty Images

While the government shutdown distracted much of the media from the troubled September 30 launch of the Affordable Care Act's national insurance marketplace, heathcare.gov, the site's numerous and ongoing issues have become impossible to ignore. The New York Times took a comprehensive look at the nearly two-week-old system, and it's not pretty. "These are not glitches," said an insurance executive who has communicated with federal officials who are trying to implement the new healthcare plan. "The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, 'It's awful, just awful.'"

At least 14.6 million people have visited the site so far, but the government has declined to say how many have successfully used it to enroll in insurance programs. Insurance executives told the Times that they have received only "a trickle" of enrollment files. Some forms have been sent to the wrong insurers because of company name mix-ups, while others are unusable because they are missing "crucial information." Meanwhile, a Times researcher who managed to register with healthcare.gov on October 1 was never able to actually log in to the site, despite 4o attempts to do so over the course of eleven days.

Apparently, healthcare.gov's flaws aren't a surprise to many people who worked on it directly. Internal reports show that officials repeatedly worried that the $400 million system would not be ready in time for the scheduled launch date, which the Obama administration reportedly refused to move or scale back because they did not want to give ammunition to Obamacare's eager critics. Concerns included shortages of funds and other resources, slowness in providing contractors with specifications for the project, and the decision to make the Medicare and Medicaid agency responsible for integrating and testing the newly created databases and software.

Officials have said publicly that the site should be fixed in time for the December deadline to sign up for coverage that begins on New Year's Day. A Times source "familiar with the system's development" says it's "now roughly 70 percent of the way toward operating properly." As for that other 30 percent? "I’ve heard as little as two weeks or as much as a couple of months." Obviously, this situation is embarrassing for the White House. It also poses a threat to the success of the Obamacare. The program won't result in lower insurance prices unless large numbers of people participate in the new healthcare exchanges, and that won't happen if they can't even get the website to work.