Obama: HealthCare.gov’s Product Is Good but the Cash Register’s Malfunctioning

Todd Park shows Barack Obama information on a tablet computer in April.

Todd Park shows Barack Obama information on a tablet computer in April. White House

The White House has recruited a tiger team to fix the ailing online health insurance marketplace.

This story has been updated to include comments from President Obama and additional response from the Health and Human Services Department.

The White House is bringing in software experts from inside and outside government to work around the clock in what it calls a “tech surge” to fix the ailing online health insurance marketplace HealthCare.gov, President Obama said on Monday.

The move comes nearly three weeks after the site’s rocky launch, after which less than one percent of visitors successfully enrolled in a plan. It comes less than one week after the end of a partial government shutdown that furloughed at least some of the experts now being called in to correct the glitches.

“No one’s madder than me about the fact the site isn’t working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed,” the president said in an address Monday morning.

The president told uninsured Americans that the product of cheaper health insurance offered through statewide plans -- the signature domestic legislation of his first term -- is good even if the “cash register” people use to purchase those plans is malfunctioning.

“We did not wage this long, contentious battle just around a website,” Obama said. “That’s not what this was about. We waged this battle to make sure that millions of Americans in the wealthiest nation on earth have the same chance to get the same security of affordable quality health care as anyone else.”

He promised that everyone who wishes to purchase health insurance through the online marketplace will be able to do so before the open enrollment period closes on March 31, 2014.

Everyone who tried to enroll through HealthCare.gov but was unable to complete the application will be contacted by the government with a recommendation about how to proceed, he said.

While the site remains glitchy, Obama urged uninsured Americans to enroll in plans in person or by phone. Phone wait times are only about one minute, he said. 

The experts recruited to revamp the ailing HealthCare.gov include U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, a former health care software entrepreneur and Health and Human Services Department CTO who was involved in the early stages of building HealthCare.gov, according to a report from Bloomberg News. They also include some Presidential Innovation Fellows, Bloomberg reported, referring to tech enterpreneurs participating in a short-term program Park helped spearhead to help on specific government projects.

All of the innovation fellows were furloughed during the shutdown.

HealthCare.gov is a major component of President Obama’s landmark health care reform law. The site was designed to connect uninsured people in 36 states with easy-to-read comparisons of available insurance plans in their areas. The site also provides underlying data for 14 state-run insurance exchanges and the District of Columbia exchange.

HHS did not provide Nextgov further details about what other departments and agencies are being tapped for help.

In a blog post Sunday, HHS officials gave their fullest explanation to date of what went wrong with HealthCare.gov and what the government has done to fix it, though it was still short on many details. Government software engineers have been “working around the clock” to correct software glitches that prevented people from registering with the site and from logging back into the site after they’d registered and received a confirming email, HHS said.

An independent study by the market research firm Millward Brown Digital found that, as of Oct. 5, only 271,000 HealthCare.gov visitors made it past those two steps out of 9.47 million who visited the site. Not all of those people were frustrated by software glitches, Millward Brown noted, because some were directed to state-run insurance exchanges.

The government has also added extra server capacity to handle a larger-than-expected volume of visitors since HealthCare.gov’s launch, HHS said.

“The initial consumer experience of HealthCare.gov has not lived up to the expectations of the American people,” the agency said. “We are committed to doing better.”

The HHS blog post also included a comment form for people to sound off about their experience with the website. Comments posted to the form were not publicly visible.

A separate blog post directly on the HealthCare.gov site listed improvements made since the site’s launch. Those include the ability to preview health insurance plans without filling out a form and an improved calculator to see if applicants qualify for lower cost premiums.

Officials have not said how many people have enrolled in insurance plans through the federal website. HealthCare.gov has had 19 million unique visitors so far, HHS said.