Oct. 21 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration, admitting the health insurance exchange has failed to meet expectations, is asking a group of the “best and brightest,” including U.S. technology chief Todd Y. Park, to bring the site up to speed.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at 11:25 a.m. today in Washington to address the technology troubles, according to a White House official. Park, a co-founder of medical technology companies Athenahealth Inc. and Castlight Health Inc., is assisting in trying to fix healthcare.gov, Jason Young, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a phone interview yesterday.
The government also asked the site’s main contractor, a unit of Montreal-based CGI Group Inc., to add staff and assign its “A-Team” to the efforts, Young said. While almost 500,000 people have applied for insurance through state and federal exchanges that opened Oct. 1, HHS in a blog post yesterday promised a “tech surge,” in the administration’s first detailed comments on how it planned to correct the site’s flaws.
“To ensure that we make swift progress, and that the consumer experience continues to improve, our team has called in additional help,” HHS said. “Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government.”
The post didn’t provide specifics on those upgrades or who would be brought in to help. It also didn’t say how many of the applications had come through the 14 independent, state-run insurance exchanges, which have so far run more smoothly than the federal site serving the remaining 36 states.
‘Hiding the Ball’
While the tech surge promise “makes a good sound bite,” it’s “woefully short on detail,” said Julia Lawless, a spokeswoman for Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. “Who are they bringing in? When can Americans expect real results? The Obama administration has to stop hiding the ball and start explaining exactly what the problem is, what are they doing to fix it and when can the American people can see results.”
The federal site is the government’s online portal for people looking for new health plans and subsidies under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which seeks to insure as many as 7 million people by the end of March. Employees and contractors for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a part of the health department, have been working to fix it.
Parks’s involvement may be a sign the White House is asserting more control over the project. Park spent the first week of October sleeping on the floor of his office as he tried to help get healthcare.gov off the mat, said Jonathan Bush, the chief executive officer at Athenahealth, which runs cloud computing services for almost 50,000 medical providers.
Park, 40, is “incredibly energetic, incredibly precise and incredibly dedicated,” Bush said from his Watertown, Massachusetts, office. “If anybody can snatch this from the jaws of the bureaucracy, he can.”
The pair founded Athenahealth in 1997. In 2008, Park helped start San Francisco-based Castlight, an online health-care shopping site for consumers.
HHS will also get help from members of a White House program called “innovation fellows,” said Young, the department spokesman. The program brings leaders from the private sector, academia and nonprofits to temporarily work on government projects with difficult histories, including computer and data systems and disaster response.
Young said he didn’t know which fellows would work on healthcare.gov and two White House spokeswomen didn’t immediately respond to e-mailed questions about the fellows.
About 8.6 million people visited the website in the first week, encountering software problems and long waits that prevented many from even registering. The site serves people in 36 states that chose not to build their own exchanges, including Florida and Texas. At one point, it posted error messages for users in at least 24 of those states.
The department has been working “around the clock” to fix problems, adding capacity to the system and making multiple upgrades to the software code, HHS said in its blog message.
“Today, more and more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans,” it said. “We’re proud of these quick improvements, but we know there’s still more work to be done.”
Federal officials have previously declined to publicly discuss the problems with the site or to detail plans to fix it, drawing criticism from Republican opponents in Congress.
It’s still unclear how many of the applications will ultimately lead to people taking the final step of signing up for insurance. The administration has said it will release enrollment figures from the federal healthcare.gov website monthly, starting in mid-November.
More than 300,000 people have been able to either start or complete an application for insurance on the 14 independent, state-run exchanges, according to a tally of figures released by the states and Washington, D.C.
In Washington state, where the site has had few issues since the first day, 37,000 have completed applications to determine their eligibility for insurance and about 25,000 of those have enrolled in a private insurance plan or Medicaid program, the state said Oct. 14. On Kentucky’s exchange, there were 20,337 applications and 9,453 people who completed enrollment in a plan as of Oct. 10, the state said.
Not all states have released the number of people who have gone from completing an application to actually signing up and paying for insurance. A few states, such as New York, have struggled with delays similar to those seen on healthcare.gov
New York, which has said its technical issues are now largely solved, said 124,000 people completed the full application process as of Oct. 16 and were determined eligible to purchase a health insurance plan on the exchange. The state hasn’t said how many of those people have taken the final step of purchasing a plan.
One state that has had the biggest struggle is Hawaii, which was two weeks behind schedule in launching a fully functional site. While people were able to log on, create an account and start the application process Oct. 1, it wasn’t until Oct. 15 that they were able to actually shop for a plan and compare prices. Hawaii’s exchange is being run by the same company, CGI Group, which is in charge of the federal site.
Oregon said in August that its site wouldn’t be ready until at least mid-October though it has already started enrolling people by phone and mail.
In the first two weeks, 56,000 people signed up for Oregon’s Medicaid program, cutting the number of uninsured there by 10 percent, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
--With assistance from Julianna Goldman in Washington and Shannon Pettypiece in New York. Editors: Romaine Bostick, Reg Gale