Web traffic was 7 times greater than Medicare site ever saw

The Obama Affordable Healthcare. Image Source: Pete Souza; COURTESY OF www.democratichub.com

OCTOBER 24, 2013 (Computerworld) ORIGINALLY POSTED OCTOBER 1, 2013 - - By Lucas Mearian - The U.S. government's Health Insurance Exchange (HIX) website and its state-run counterparts launched today and were immediately flooded with potential enrollees, causing widespread glitches throughout the country.

As of about 4 p.m. ET, more than 2.8 million people had visited the U.S. Health and Human Service's healthcare website since the HIXes went live at 8 a.m., according to Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

CMS oversees the administration of the HIXes, a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. The ACA requires all states to roll out HIXes or opt for a federally-operated version of one, where consumers can compare in one place plans based on price, deductibles and benefits.

Citizens who apply for healthcare insurance on the open exchange by Dec. 15, will be able to receive coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2014. Those who wait until after Dec. 15 to apply will receive coverage at a later date.

"In less than 15 hours today, our site traffic has tripled from what we saw when we re-launched in June.

What's more, there were seven times more users on the [HIX] marketplace website today than have ever been on the Medicare.gov website at any one given time," Tavenner said, referring to HHS's Healthcare.gov site.

The HHS, under which CMS operates, also posted a warning on its website about being flooded with a high volume of requests.

CMS refused to disclose how many people have been able to enroll in health insurance plans, saying only that "people have been able to successfully complete the application and enrollment process."

Officials admitted to having technical issues with their website that stopped some from enroll ing. The officials said they're continuing to work on those problems to smooth out the wrinkles.

"We're very pleased with progress states are making," Gary Cohen, deputy administrator and director for the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, said during a news conference at 4 p.m.

"We are making improvements as we speak. What we're hearing from other issuers is that problems are being resolved," Tavenner said. "This is day one of a six-month process. You have until Dec. 15 to enroll for coverage for Jan. 1."

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 12 million consumers will buy health insurance in the HIX market by 2014, with that figure rising to nearly 28 million people by 2019.

The overwhelming majority of those using the HIXs will be low-income people, contractors who don't have an employer-sponsored plan or those already insured through employer plans, but whose family members aren't covered.

"About 17 million of those newly insured (those below 133% of the Federal Poverty Level) will receive coverage through an expanded Medicaid program," PricewaterhouseCoopers International (PwC) said in a report released in June.

"There are potentially 14 million new people walking through the electronic front door in light of ACA," said Garland Kemper, health and human services program director at services provider Unisys. "There are [state-based computer] systems that in some cases are 25 years old. They're legacy apps that, to modify the rules to reflect the new federal ones, will be very difficult. It varies state to state.

"This is going to be a huge impact to state government," she added.

One of the most cited problems by those attempting to sign up for healthcare insurance online was an issue associated with creating a password, which protects the enrollee's identity. Several members of national news organizations stated that people states including Maryland, Virginia, Hawaii, Michigan and Florida had trouble logging into the HIX website in order to enroll.

One of the problems is that some public HIXes, such as Massachusetts' Health Connector, have been online for years,. Other states found themselves behind the curve and faced tough deadlines to enact their exchanges. Massachusettts' Health Connector uses a model where the state evaluates and selects insurers in a competitive bidding process, and then offers those insurers to the public.

However, 36 states opted out of creating their own HIXes and instead opted to allow residents to visit the federally-created HIX, which offers a central database of insurers from which they can choose based on their state and economic status.

About 85% of Americans are already covered by some form of insurance, ether privately or as part of their benefits from an employer. The other 15% of Americans who are self-employed or unemployed are the target of the HIX system.

The Healthcare.gov site also offers an around-the-clock chat line to assist enrollees with the process. Some users found that service down, as well. Additionally, a Medicaid calculator tool that allows enrollees to calculate their tax credits after enrolling also experienced issues with accuracy.

Tavenner said part of the problem with the calculator has been that it double-checks all the results, which can result in slowdowns, but "we're seeing more accuracy," she added.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at Twitter @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed Mearian RSS. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.


Ailing Obamacare website to get a 'tech surge' By Juan Carlos Perez October 20, 2013 07:45 PM ET

U.S. government calls for reinforcements to help it fix Healthcare.gov

IDG News Service - The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is boosting the IT trauma team giving urgent care to the Obamacare website, which has badly malfunctioned since its launch almost three weeks ago.

The embattled agency said on Sunday that it is working around the clock and calling in an A-Team of IT experts as it scrambles to cure the ills plaguing HealthCare.gov.

"Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the [HHS] team and help improve HealthCare.gov," the blog post reads. "We're also putting in place tools and processes to aggressively monitor and identify parts of HealthCare.gov where individuals are encountering errors or having difficulty using the site, so we can prioritize and fix them."

Other emergency measures being taken as part of what HHS calls a "tech surge" include defining new test processes to prevent new problems and regularly patching bugs during off-peak hours.

The website is the online portal for consumers seeking to buy health insurance under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, the law popularly known as Obamacare that is the signature legislation of President Barack Obama .

Since its signing in 2010, the law has been under constant political attack from Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate, who say Obamacare is a faulty piece of legislation that will do more harm than good. However, they so far have had little success in their attempts to have it struck down or defunded.

Ironically, what appears to be a bad case of IT ineptitude from President Obama's own team at HHS has done more damage to the public perception and implementation of the law these past three weeks than the years-long political challenges from Republicans.

HealthCare.gov so far has been barely functional, struggling to cope with the traffic hitting it and reportedly recording incorrectly some of the data people have submitted through it.

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that in addition to the site's performance and availability problems, HealthCare.gov is also corrupting data some consumers input, so that health insurers are receiving duplicate enrollments and applications with spouses are reported as children, missing data fields and suspect eligibility determinations.

Fixing the system, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, could take up to two months, the New York Times reported a week ago.

"Unfortunately, the experience on HealthCare.gov has been frustrating for many Americans. Some have had trouble creating accounts and logging in to the site, while others have received confusing error messages, or had to wait for slow page loads or forms that failed to respond in a timely fashion. The initial consumer experience of HealthCare.gov has not lived up to the expectations of the American people. We are committed to doing better," HHS said in its blog post Sunday.

But HHS, which is in scalding water over what many consider an unparalleled fiasco, also tried to put a positive spin on the situation and do some damage control, saying that fixing the site is a top priority and that some parts of the website have worked as intended.

"The 'Data Hub' component, which provides HealthCare.gov with information that aids in determining eligibility for qualified health plans, is working. Individuals have been able to verify their eligibility for credits, enabling them to shop for and enroll in low or even no-cost health plans," the blog post reads.

Since the site's launch, HHS has been working "around the clock" to fix the problems and has patched many bugs, which has resulted in site performance improvements, the agency said.

"Today, more and more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans. We're proud of these quick improvements, but we know there's still more work to be done. We will continue to conduct regular maintenance nearly every night to improve the experience," the post reads.

HHS also said that almost 500,000 insurance applications have been submitted nationwide and that there have been 19 million unique visits to HealthCare.gov. It's not clear if the number of applications refers to those made only via the website or if it also includes those submitted over the phone and via regular mail.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.


Obamacare data hub is secure and ready to roll By Jaikumar Vijayan September 11, 2013 04:22 PM ET

GO TO THE HHS SITE: http://www.hhs.gov/secretary/about/goal1.html

Agency says Federal Services Data Hub exchange system has passed all required security tests

Computerworld - The central system built to support Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance exchanges has successfully completed security testing and is set to begin operating on Oct. 1, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced Wednesday.

The CMS said that an independent security controls assessment conducted last month found that the Federal Services Data Hub complies with all federal security requirements.

The privacy and security of consumer data is a "top priority" for the CMS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which will implement the ACA, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. "The Hub and its associated systems have been built with state-of-the art business processes based on federal and industry standards," the CMS said in a statement.

The data hub, often referred to as the Obamacare Hub, has been a focal point of concern by several privacy and advocacy groups.

Described by CMS as a routing tool, the hub is designed to let state and federal facilitated healthcare marketplaces quickly verify the eligibility of individuals seeking insurance coverage. The system connects healthcare insurance exchanges with numerous federal government databases at agencies like the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Services, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Hub itself will not store any data. It's designed to move information between the federal database systems and the marketplaces. "The Hub increases efficiency and security by eliminating the need for each Marketplace, Medicaid agency....to set up separate data connections to each database," the CMS said.

Some critics, though, contend that the Hub is a recipe for disaster.

For instance, The Heritage Foundation earlier this month cautioned that the data hub could expose many Americans to identity fraud. Those using the system to verify insurance eligibility will have easy access to sensitive personal information including bank account, Social Security and insurance data, it said.

The advocacy group Citizens Council for Health Freedom earlier this year contended data security is impossible given the interconnectedness of the hub system. While government officials tout health insurance exchanges as innocuous, easy-to-use portals, they are in reality extensive government data-sharing systems that lack security controls, the group had warned in a statement.

The CMS, meanwhile, contends that the hub includes several features that ensure security and privacy of data traversing through it. For instance, the insurance marketplace systems that connect to the Hub will employ sensors and event monitoring tools to continuously monitor for anomalous activity.

The tools will be capable of detecting and mitigating "irregular behavior and unauthorized system changes," the CMS noted, without adding specifics about the tools.

"If a security incident occurs, an Incident Response capability would be activated, which allows for the tracking, investigation, and reporting of incidents. This allows CMS and the Department of Health and Human Services to quickly identify security incidents and ensure that the relevant law enforcement authorities, such as the HHS Office of Inspector General Cyber Crimes Unit, are notified for purposes of possible criminal investigation," the agency noted.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, welcomed the CMS announcement.

"I am pleased that the Administration has completed security testing of its healthcare exchange data hub ahead of schedule," Thompson noted. "This will give confidence to those shopping for healthcare starting October 1st that the government will ensure their privacy."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at Twitter@jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed Vijayan RSS. His email address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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