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A week later, many uninsured still unable to use website to pick health plan

Updated: November 10, 2013 6:16AM



One week has gone by since it launched, yet many Illinoisans have not been able to peek into the state’s online marketplace — which is supposed to be where middle-income uninsured can shop for health plans, courtesy of the Affordable Care Act.

The federal government had blamed the non-working website on high volume of traffic on the site, which is running the online marketplaces for Illinois and 33 other states.

But on Monday, President Barack Obama’s top technology adviser told the New York Times that the technical problems have resulted from the failure of the part of the website that lets people create user accounts.

The identification of the software component as the main cause of the website’s problems is the most detailed federal officials have been since the online marketplaces went live on Oct. 1.

The marketplace is supposed to be one of the key ways the Affordable Care Act — or more informally, “Obamacare” — expands the number of Americans who have insurance by offering them a one-stop place where they can find new, more affordable health insurance plans.

Nationally, the website had gotten 8.6 million individual visitors as of Friday. In Illlinois, just more than 231,000 people have visited as of last Wednesday, the most recent date available.

The federal government has been working to fix the problem and noted that it has been able to expand system capacity somewhat, cutting by one-third the volume of people waiting to apply.

“But we won’t stop until the doors to HealthCare.gov are wide open,” U.S. Health and Human Services spokesman Fabien Levy said.

Already, outside technology experts have noted that the website, www.healthcare.gov, appears to be troubled by coding problems and flaws in the architecture of the system.

With the ‘Obamacare’ site, “there’s too many queries pushing too much information back and forth between the user and the main system…because of the way they designed it,” said Bill Curtis, chief scientist at CAST, a software quality analysis firm, and director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality. “That’s just chewing up all the bandwidth. So you as a user are just trapped in the queue.”

Matthew Hancock, an independent expert in website design in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, agreed that the website “wasn’t designed optimally to handle the load.”

He added, “So, the system was overloaded, but with some simple fixes the site would have been better able to handle the load.”

White House officials declined to identify the private contractors who had built the account creation function, citing a decision to keep that information private.

Experts estimated that it could take weeks to months to fix the problem.

Consumers must pick a plan by Dec. 15 to have coverage starting Jan. 1, 2014, when penalties kick in for not having insurance. If consumers aren’t enrolled by March 31, they have to wait until the next year to participate in the plan.

mjthomas@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MonifaThomas1



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