Insurance exchanges website expected to meet deadline

Officials say it will have ability to handle 50,000 users at time

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WASHINGTON -- Administration officials are preparing to announce Sunday that they have met their deadline today for improving, according to government officials, in part by expanding the site's ability to handle 50,000 users at once. But they have yet to meet all their internal goals for repairing the federal health care site, and it will not become clear how many consumers it can accommodate until more people try to use it.

As of Friday night, federal officials and contractors had achieved two goals, according to government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations. They had increased the system's capacity and reduced errors. On the other hand, the site's pages do not load as fast as they want, officials said, and they are working to ensure that large numbers of consumers can enter the site.

An official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency overseeing the federal health insurance exchange, said the site's true capacity is somewhat murky because they need to see how it performs under "weekday traffic volumes" when demand is at its peak.

Federal employees and IT contractors were to work through the night Friday to try to reach one of the remaining targets: how many people per hour should be able to register and log onto the site. An earlier attempt to make the fix failed several days ago.

Nov. 30 was not originally intended to be a key date for the online enrollment system, but it took on outsized political and public importance when administration officials announced five weeks ago that the "vast majority of users" would be able to sign up for insurance through the site by that day. A combination of federal employees, outside contractors and a handful of technical and management experts have worked at breakneck speed for five weeks to improve the website's performance as the White House has come under withering criticism from its political foes and some consumers.

In an ABC interview Friday night with Barbara Walters, President Barack Obama said he was confident that, in time, Americans would come to embrace his controversial health care law.

"I continue to believe -- and [I am] absolutely convinced -- that at the end of the day, people are going to look back at the work we've done to make sure that in this country you don't go bankrupt when you get sick, that families have that security," he said. "That is going to be a legacy I am extraordinarily proud of."

Administration officials have said for several weeks that they define success as having "the vast majority of users" be able to navigate the site and sign up for insurance. White House press secretary Jay Carney earlier this month said the administration's aim was to have 80 percent of users enroll through the site. Those working on the project have set speed and error rates as a way to measure that goal.

A significant upgrade in the website's capacity was carried out early this week, government officials said, which allowed to accommodate more people at once without causing a malfunction. For instance, many more consumers can simultaneously be on a section of the site designed to let people compare available health plans.

Even so, how much load the site can withstand depends on how much consumers ask it to do. For example, simply looking around on the "learn" part of the site, where people can get basic information and a rough sense of prices, puts less strain on the system than the areas where people actually apply for coverage.

The upgrade workers were attempting at midnight Friday is intended to allow more people to use initial stages of seeking insurance on the site. But the upgrade also meant the site would be unavailable overnight from 9 p.m. Eastern time Friday until 8 a.m. today.

Administration officials have established a capacity goal of 80,000 consumers per hour being able to register and 320,000 people per hour who already have accounts being able to log in, said federal officials familiar with this aspect of the project, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal details. The team has not yet attained its target of cutting the average load time across the site to no more than half a second, officials said, but it runs faster than before.

The blitz to rehabilitate the site has entailed an unusual public and private partnership over the past five weeks. The White House rejected the idea of turning over the site repair work mainly to Silicon Valley allies, some of whom served as the president's campaign operatives, deciding instead to selectively tap a handful to help steer the project.

Google employee Michael "Mikey" Dickerson, who is on leave and volunteered on both Obama campaigns, has led the twice daily calls in which the entire team has discussed ongoing problems and how to solve them. Civis Analytics chief technology officer Gabriel Burt, who was lead analytics engineer and product manager for Mr. Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, has also been deeply involved.

Jeffrey Zients, former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, designated by the White House in late October to oversee the project, told reporters at a briefing this week that the administration "brought in a fresh set of eyes" the week of Oct. 21 to examine the system. He said that survey concluded within a few days that the website could be fixed, that it did not need to be thrown out and a new one installed -- but that the fix would require "additional talent and expertise" and a different way of approaching the site's defects.

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