By Kelly Kennedy, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The troubled HealthCare.gov website will be running properly by late November, said Jeffrey Zients, President Obama's appointee to fix the problems that have plagued the site since its Oct. 1 opening.
"By the end of November, HealthCare.gov will work smoothly for the vast majority of users," Zients said Friday. "The HealthCare.gov site is fixable. It will take a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed."
Zients, former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, was called in Monday to help with the site until it is fixed. He helped with other website glitches during Obama's first term.
QSSI, a division of UnitedHealth Group, will serve as a general contractor to oversee the effort, he said. Their existing contract for the site has been renegotiated.
"We are appointing what you can think of as a general contractor to manage the overall effort," Zients said. "There will be a relentless focus on speed and execution" in fixing the problems.
The volume of applications did cause initial problems, Zients said, but there were also problems "across the site." He said there were "performance problems," or the glitches consumers ran into as they made their ways through the site, such as frozen pages or error messages.
But there were also "functional problems."
"These are bugs that prevent the software from performing the way it's supposed to work," he said. "There's a punch list of fixes, and we're going to punch them out one by one."
One of the first things on that list is making sure insurers receive correct information, rather than duplicates or errors such as a husband being listed as a dependent child.
Still, he said things are getting better.
"We're now at 90%; 90% can create an account," Zients said. "We're executing a plan of attack and the system is getting better."
But he described the actual application process as "volatile." Only three out of 10 have been able to create an application.
QSSI did not take interview requests, but issued a brief statement following the announcement: "Working with CMS, QSSI will help monitor, assess, prioritize and manage the technical operations of HealthCare.gov to enhance the consumer experience."
About 700,000 applications have been begun nationwide, and half of them have come in through the website, said Julie Bataille, director of the office of communications for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
Bataille said those who are caught in limbo - or a "groundhog day" scenario of resubmitting requests for passwords or eligibility forms and not being able to move forward - would be individually contacted by people who could help them.
The announcement followed an acrimonious House hearing Thursday where contractors who worked on HealthCare.gov said the problems emerged when testing began two weeks before the site was launched. Republicans claimed the government knew before the launch that there would be major glitches in the site. Democrats said Republicans were using the problems for political reasons, rather than working to get the site up with the further goal of health insurance for everyone.
Republicans and a few Democrats up for reelection in tight races called for a delay of the individual mandate, or the fine Americans must pay if they do not have insurance by March 31.
That's not necessary, said Bataille and White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
"People will be able to apply by Dec. 15 to get coverage by Jan. 1," she said, adding that people are able to get through now, but the process will "get better every week."
"We're less than four weeks into a six-month enrollment period," Earnest said.
Early enrollment numbers are likely to be down because of the website problems, but the numbers are likely to pick up the closer the nation gets to the end-of-March deadline, he said.
"What we're focused on right now is to improve the website," Earnest said. "We're making some progress."
During Thursday's hearing, Andrew Slavitt of Optum/QSSI said his company had found problems in the code, and that all of the contractors, as well as the government, had been informed of those problems. He said CMS understood the issues and was working on them.
"We did fully talk about the risks that we saw, and we passed them along," he said.
Slavitt said his company had been paid $85 million for their work on the site. CGI Federal, the other main contractor on the site, had been paid $211 million.
Contributing: David Jackson