The Obama administration said Sunday the flawed federal website that threatened to undo President Obama's health care law in its infancy "is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1."
At the same time, officials tempered expectations going forward, saying occasional bugs on HealthCare.gov should be expected.
"With any Web project there's not a magic moment but a process of continual improvement over time, and we will continue to work to make enhancements in the days, weeks and months ahead," said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
The agency released its progress report on the federal insurance portal over the holiday weekend, a response to intense pressure to meet its self-imposed Dec. 1 goal for getting the site working for most users.
The report said the website's repair team had completed more than 400 "bug fixes and software improvements" since the start of October. It also stressed its dedication to the repair mission, touting twice-a-day "war room" meetings and 24-7 monitoring of the site, which serves 36 states that decided not to set up their own health exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.
The online exchanges were supposed to allow consumers shop for private health plans, often with the help of government subsidies.
But rampant capacity issues and software bugs hindered HealthCare.gov from the start, threatening to upend Mr. Obama's signature domestic achievement, if not his entire second term.
"The status of HealthCare.gov in October was marked by an unacceptable user experience," Sunday's report acknowledged. "Consumers were experiencing slow response times and frequent, inexplicable error messages. The website experienced frequent outages. For some weeks in the month of October, the site was down an estimated 60 percent of the time."
The website faces its toughest test yet in the weeks ahead, as many consumers are expected to return to the site after early struggles. Consumers are hoping to sign up by Dec. 23, the deadline to gain coverage by Jan. 1, and whether the website can handle another rush of users remains an open question.
Jeffrey Zients, a management expert tapped by the White House to oversee fixes, said Sunday that recent traffic on HealthCare.gov has been higher than on a typical weekend.
"The site has been performing well in terms of response times and error rates," he said, noting that a new, consumer-friendly queuing system will kick in if the site is overwhelmed.
He said his repair team has fixed management problems that hampered the project early on, including slow decision-making and "diffuse or unclear accountability" among government agencies and contractors responsible for the site.
Among tech fixes, he said, his team installed new hardware into the registration system to prevent a bottleneck at the front end of the enrollment process, quadrupling its capacity to handle new users and widening the system's "on-ramp."
"It now has four lanes instead of one or two," Mr. Zients said.
Obamacare enrollment barely crested 100,000 on the federal portal and state-run exchanges during the first month, raising serious questions about whether the administration can meet its projected goal of 7 million enrollees by the end of open enrollment on March 31.
State-run exchanges reported a surge in enrollment during November, but it's unclear if the federal system will be able to matches their success stories.
Additionally, Mr. Obama has faced several other hurdles in selling his health care law to the public.
Several weeks ago, he found himself confronted by angry Americans who were promised they could keep their health plans, only to receive cancellation notices that said their plans did not meet Obamacare's coverage requirements.
Republican lawmakers jumped on the problem, saying it validated the concerns they have expressed about Obamacare ever since Democratic majorities muscled it through Congress early 2010. Despite fixes to the site, GOP leaders say the administration has lost its credibility with the American public.
Democrats who supported the law are losing their patience with the administration, as they see their 2014 electoral chances threatened by the overhaul's early struggles. Several Democratic senators up for re-election have proposed legislative remedies to help people who are losing their existing plans.
Mr. Obama said state insurance commissioners and insurers can let customers renew their bare-bones plans for one year, since the website's troubles prevented consumers from exploring their options before they fell into a coverage gap on Jan. 1.
(c) 2013 The Washington Times (Washington, D.C.)