Exchange delays traced to software crash at high demand

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WASHINGTON -- Ongoing technical problems that have hampered enrollment in the online health insurance exchanges resulted from the failure of a major software component, designed by private contractors, that crashed under the weight of millions of users last week, federal officials said Monday.

Todd Park, President Barack Obama's top technology adviser, said the failure occurred in the part of the website that lets people create user accounts at the start of the insurance sign-up process. The crash prevented many people from viewing any of their insurance options or accessing information on what federal subsidies might be available.

"At lower volumes, it would work fine," Mr. Park said of the website, healthcare.gov. "At higher volumes, it has problems. Right now, we've got what we think we need. The contractors have sent reinforcements. They are working 24-7. We just wish there was more time in a day."

In some cases, the website does not recognize users who set up accounts before Oct. 1, when the online marketplaces where consumers can shop for insurance opened. Other users are prevented from creating new accounts. Some who successfully set up a marketplace account received an email asking them to verify their email address, but the link provided did not work.

Identification of the software component as the main cause of the website's woes was the most detailed explanation federal officials have given since the marketplaces opened. Officials also rejected mounting criticism of the website's overall design, saying the rest of the site appears ready for large volumes of traffic.

But because of the initial failures, other parts of the complex system have yet to be proven under the intense strain of real-world conditions.

Outside experts said White House officials should have spent more time tending to website code and technology, rather than recruiting Hollywood celebrities to promote it.

White House officials declined to identify the private contractors who built the account-creation function, citing a decision to keep that private. They said the contractors had moved that part of the new system to beefed-up hardware and were busy rewriting software code to make it more robust and efficient. In the past week, wait times have dropped by half, officials said, and staff members have been added at call centers to provide customers an alternative to the online system.

The website now says people "in a hurry" can apply faster at a government call center, using a toll-free phone number, 1-800-318-2596. But a call center operator on Monday said he couldn't help because he, too, was "experiencing technical difficulties with the website."

Aneesh Chopra, who preceded Mr. Park as the federal government's chief technology officer and helped create an earlier version of healthcare.gov, said he was confident that the system would be working effectively in coming weeks. He noted that when United Airlines and Continental merged their online reservations systems, it took weeks to iron out problems.

"This is par for the course for large-scale IT projects," Mr. Chopra said. "We wish we could launch bug-free, but in reality, that's not that easy to do. The reality is that if you have a product that people want, people will tolerate glitches because they expect them."

Administration officials said they had relied heavily on contractors to build and operate the federal exchanges, under supervision of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In the weeks before the marketplaces opened, those contractors expressed high optimism that their systems would work.

The prime contractor for the federal exchange -- CGI Federal, a unit of Montreal-based CGI Group -- and the company operating a "data services hub" for the government -- Quality Software Services Inc., a unit of the UnitedHealth Group -- told Congress at a Sept. 10 hearing that they were ready for a surge of users when enrollment opened Oct. 1.

But in recent days, officials at those firms declined to answer questions on the website woes. CGI spokeswoman Linda Odorisio and UnitedHealth spokesman Matthew Stearns refused last week and again Monday to discuss their companies' performance. Both firms said they had passed operational readiness reviews the government conducted last month.

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First Published October 7, 2013 8:00 PM


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