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Obamacare glitches are to be expected, health experts say

Posted at 3:22 PM, Oct 02, 2013
and last updated 2013-10-02 15:23:35-04

(CNN) — Buggy websites, long hold times and other glitches have marred the first two days of the long-awaited rollout of open enrollment for Obamacare health-care coverage.

Blame the gawkers, at least in part, health-care experts said Wednesday.

“I think a lot of people trying to get on were just curious, like me,” said Drexel University health policy expert Robert Field. “Once that initial curiosity dies down and it’s just people who need policies, you’ll see much less traffic.”

In the 24 hours after its launch, more than 4.7 million people have visited the federal website providing signups in 34 states, Health and Human Services Department spokeswoman Joanne Peters said Tuesday. Government officials haven’t said how many have actually signed up.

“We expect to see similar volume as yesterday, and while this overwhelming interest is continuing to cause wait times, there will be continuing improvements in the coming hours and days,” Peters said.

States running their own exchanges reported high traffic volumes as well, suggesting that the problems were related to the intense traffic: Too many people had bellied up to the virtual service counter, and the hardware dedicated to sending webpages to users’ computers couldn’t make out the questions for all the shouting.

The effect is similar to, if less nefarious than, a common attack used by hackers to bring down websites: sending so much traffic its way that servers slow or even shut down.

‘Too many people’

Such problems do not mean, as some Republican critics of the health plan have said, that Obamacare is already a failure, said Michael Doonan, an assistant professor at Brandeis University and a former program specialist with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services who also served on President Bill Clinton’s health-care task force.

“It’s a technical problem, too many people coming in,” he said.

The exchanges are complex technological systems that require a lot of interplay between agencies, and there’s only so much engineers can do to test a system before opening it to the public, he said.

“You really need to test them in real time and then backfill with some of the things you really need to get them to work,” Doonan said.

Peters said the department is “working to speed up the process” and expects enrollment times to drop “in the coming hours.”


There’s no evidence, Field said, that political opposition to the plan has had any negative effect on enrollment.

The federal government is operating the exchange in 34 states, many of which refused to participate because of political opposition to the plan. In Georgia, for instance, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens as saying at a private political gathering in July that state leaders were doing “everything in our power to be an obstructionist.”

According to Georgia Health News, the state is one of 15 that passed laws to regulating the work of patient advisers, or navigators, called for in the health-care law.

But Field said such efforts, which could hinder efforts to reach people who may not be aware of the program or don’t have access to a computer, wouldn’t have played any role in the glitches seen by enrollment websites the past two days.

And Bill Rencher, who just passed the test to become a navigator in Georgia on Wednesday, said such efforts aren’t having any effect on getting word out about the program. He predicted no problems signing up for anyone who wants coverage before the December 15 deadline to get coverage on January 1.

Consumers have until March 15 to sign up for coverage beginning in April.

Just wait

Federal and many state officials in charge of the plans have suggested that consumers wait until the initial rush dies down before trying to shop for coverage.

Meanwhile, Republicans — locked with congressional Democrats and the president over efforts to eliminate the health reform program — seized on the glitches as evidence that it has already failed.

“We have been warned time and time again that Obamacare is not ready for prime time. Well, it turns out that is right,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, said Tuesday.

But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said Wednesday that it’s only natural to expect “some bumps in the road, glitches maybe, some problems with the website.”

President Barack Obama said as much Tuesday, noting that technology giant Apple had suffered glitches with its new smartphone operating system.

“I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads,” he said.

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