The White House says it met its Obamacare goal. There’s still more work ahead.

December 1, 2013
(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Today is the day: Vast Majority Sunday! For weeks now, the Obama administration has promised that HealthCare.gov would "work smoothly for the vast majority of users" by the end of November. With it now being December, the White House is taking a look at where things stand.

"HealthCare.Gov on Dec. 1 is night and day from where it was on Oc. 1," Jeffrey Zients, the former Obama administration official now managing health Web site repair efforts, told reporters Sunday morning. "While we still have work to do, we've made significant progress with HealthCare.gov working for the vast majority of consumers."

The Obama administration published a few charts to make its case. There is this one, which shows a significant drop in the time it takes to load the average page on HealthCare.gov.


The average response time for the Web site has fallen from 8 seconds in late October to about 0.75 seconds on Nov. 29.

The amount of time that the Web site is up and functional has more than doubled in the past month. Back in late October, HealthCare.gov was up and running a dismal 42 percent of the week. Now, that metric has inched upwards of 95 percent, although that does exclude planned maintenance periods.


"We have improvements in stability...given the redundancy and capacity we've added to the system," Zients says. Yes, there are still glitches, but they don't bring down the Web site in the way they used to last month. "When we experience system glitches and slowdowns we can resolve them."

Zients says that the team working on HealthCare.gov has knocked about 400 software bugs and fixes off of its punch list. There are twice-a-day meetings of key leadership in the project and, from the command system in suburban Maryland have "an open line bridge connecting...with key managers working on the system," Zients says.

Taking this all together, Medicare spokeswoman Julie Bataille told reporters that as of Dec. 1, "we're more in the zone of 80 percent of users being able to [sign up]."

As Ezra Klein and NPR's Julie Rovner have pointed out, it's difficult  to verify this type of metric independently. "The zone of 80 percent" could stretch downward toward half of users having a successful experience, or upward, with nearly all shoppers getting through the enrollment process.

More of our readers have been reporting a successful experience than they did during HealthCare.gov's launch. Bu there are still certain hurdles standing in some shoppers' way. Some, for example, have gotten stuck when the system can't verify their identity. There's a button to retrieve lost usernames and passwords that some users have reported to be broken.

Medicare spokeswoman Bataille said those are some of the problems addressed in the latest round of fixes, although "It may take several days for consumers to see results of these improvements." Over the next few weeks, you can expect to see the White House's sunny assessment tested against the real world experience of health care applicants.

The Obama administration has made clear, in daily update calls, that the prime focus is on improving consumers' experience on HealthCare.gov. They're especially interested in reaching out to people who have tried to sign up but failed, as opposed to those who have yet to start the process.

The metrics the Obama administration released Sunday focused on the front end of the system, the wait times and outages that consumers experience. There were no details yet on the back end of the system, the part that sends out enrollment data to insurance plans when someone signs up for their products. When HealthCare.gov launched, insurance plans say that they were getting inaccurate "834 transmissions," the files that tell them who signed up.

Bataille said that fixes implemented Saturday night were aimed at improving the accuracy of the 834 transmissions. But the administration has not given an error rate or other, specific metric to measure how quickly those are improving.

America's Health Insurance Plans, the trade group for health insurers, fired off a bit of a warning message about the back-end challenges on Friday.

“Until the enrollment process is working from end-to-end, many consumers will not be able to enroll in coverage," AHIP president Karen Ignagni said in a statement. "In addition to fixing the technical problems with healthcare.gov, the significant ‘back-end’ issues must also be resolved to ensure that coverage can begin on January 1, 2014. In particular, the ongoing problems with processing “834″ enrollment files need to be fixed."

If the system's front end works as smoothly as the Obama administration says it does, that means more applicants will get to the back-end functions of HealthCare.gov, where the insurance company needs to know who signed up for their product. We know a lot less about how prepared those systems are for a possible flood of enrollments and how they will perform in the coming weeks.

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