Photo by the Associated Press
Government technology experts took the main health insurance website down overnight Monday to try to fix the problems that have kept millions of people from signing up for new plans, but ran into more serious problems than anticipated.
The site, www.healthcare.gov, was out of order until mid-morning Tuesday, creating another big public relations headache for the Obama administration's efforts to get 7 million people or more signed up for health insurance coverage that will start as on January 1.
Some users reported trouble logging on even after the fix. It wasn't immediately clear how well it worked.
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is operating the website, says technicians were trying to fix the site permanently, after a series of fixes over the weekend didn't do the trick.
The Health and Human Services Department has been struggling to make the website work ever since it opened amid great fanfare a week ago. People who tried to sign on said they ran into bottlenecks right away. Critics said it was a sign that the government was not ready to fully implement the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and Republicans in Congress renewed their demands that the administration delay the entire project.
A White House spokesperson said some people have been able to sign up for health insurance, but says numbers of just how many won't be available until November. Administration officials say most of the trouble has come because so many people are trying to visit the site -- more than 8 million at last count.
"This maintenance helps add capacity to the system to accommodate the historic volume of traffic the site has seen over the past several days," CMS said in a statement.
"Today's maintenance is upgrading the system's capacity to prevent a slowdown. We believe that these enhancements will enable more simultaneous users to successfully create an account and move into and through the application and plan shopping process."
Last week, three insurance companies taking part in the new exchanges said they had been able to sign up just a trickle of customers. They said demand was clearly not the only problem.
The health insurance exchanges are the centerpiece of the 2010 health reform law, called the Affordable Care Act or, more commonly, Obamacare. The hope is to get health insurance to more than 40 million adults who don't have it now. Many are expected to get it via expanded Medicaid programs, but they can also buy health insurance on the exchanges.
The Congressional Budget Office expects 14 million Americans to get coverage in the first year on the exchanges or via Medicaid expansions.
Everything offered on the exchange comes from a commercial health insurance company. Companies offering policies on the exchanges must follow strict rules. They can't refuse to cover someone just because he or she had a pre-existing condition, such as cancer, diabetes or asthma. They must pay 100 percent of costs for certain checkups and cancer screenings and they can't revoke coverage just because someone's run up a huge bill.
The hope is that once people start getting regular preventive care, their health costs will fall.