Obama Administration Promises Health Care Site Will Be Fixed By End of November

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The Obama administration says the problem-plagued healthcare.gov website will be working properly by the end of November and that the government has appointed a new contractor to head up repairs for the troubled health insurance exchange.

“Each week, the experience will get better and better,” Jeff Zients, a management consultant and former administration budget official recently hired to oversee fixes to the website, told reporters on a conference call Friday. “We are confident that by the end of November, healthcare.gov will operate smoothly for the majority of users.”

If that deadline is met, it would come two months after the site was launched with major technical failures, prompting widespread criticism and giving ammunition to Republican opponents of President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

Consumers have until Dec. 15 to sign up for health care policies that start Jan. 1, 2014. Those who are uninsured and sign up for coverage by the end of an open enrollment period lasting until March 31, 2014 can avoid a penalty for not having insurance next year.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversaw development of the federal enrollment website, said Quality Software Systems Inc. (QSSI), a division of UnitedHealth Group, has been hired to serve as a “general contractor” for the site’s repair project. QSSI built healthcare.gov’s “data services hub” which digitally checks user identification information against federal databases at the IRS, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. An executive from QSSI testified before a House committee on Thursday that the hub was functioning well, despite other problems with healthcare.gov, and Zients said the same on Friday.

The decision to appoint QSSI as a lead contractor overseeing the repairs, which include many computer code fixes, indicates that federal officials at CMS are ceding at least part of their role over to a private entity. CMS had opted to serve as “system integrator” for healthcare.gov, but recently revealed that it had failed to adequately perform part of this role — testing the site’s performance thoroughly before it went live. CMS allotted just a few weeks of complete testing for heatlhcare.gov’s software, far less than what was needed.

Zients said Friday that one particularly alarming problem with healthcare.gov, its propensity for sending garbled and duplicate consumer information to insurers, was “at the top of the punch list” of items he’s focused on fixing. The Obama administration has said a “tech surge” of qualified outside technology experts had been brought in to help fix the site, but has so far refused to name members of this team. CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille also refused on Thursday and Friday to disclose how many people have enrolled in health insurance plans through the troubled website.