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HealthCare.gov: One fix down, one (huge) fix to go
The administration's much-touted fix is largely a cosmetic one
With the deadline for Jan. 1 coverage looming, Healthcare.gov still has real issues.
With the deadline for Jan. 1 coverage looming, Healthcare.gov still has real issues. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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he Obama administration announced Sunday that it had met its self-imposed deadline to have Healthcare.gov running smoothly for the "vast majority" of users.

Don't believe everything you hear. The administration's claim only means that one side of the massively complex site was up to snuff. While the front end of the health care site is now working better than ever for users, the back end of the system — which directs your information to insurance companies to complete the enrollment process — is still plagued by glitches that the administration has yet to address.

There is some legitimately positive news for ObamaCare. After a miserable debut, the federal health exchange website is working for more than 80 percent of users, according to the White House. Initially, only about 40 percent of users could successfully navigate the entire process, as the site often crashed beneath a heavy user load.

In addition, about 100,000 people signed up for coverage through the federal exchange site in November, according to Bloomberg, almost four times as many as the 27,000 who did so in October.

"The bottom line is HealthCare.gov on December 1 is night and day from where it was October 1," said Jeffrey Zients, the administration official overseeing the fixes.

Millions of people should now finally be able to use the site, thus blunting one of the biggest criticisms of the law, and giving the president some breathing room from lawmakers who had suggested they would ramp up their critiques if the site remained broken into this month.

And yet... the fix may be largely cosmetic.

Though most users can now navigate the site with relative ease, there are still lingering problems with what happens after they finish the application process. Insurers reportedly received incomplete or inaccurate information from the health care site for many users, with enrollment notices sometimes missing key information about premiums and subsidies. In some cases, insurers reportedly didn't receive any notification about would-be enrollees who thought they'd signed up for coverage.

The Health and Human Services progress report said nothing about the back end process, so it's difficult to quantify the extent of the technical failure between Healthcare.gov and private insurers. But essentially, the administration prioritized fixes from the "consumer view from the outside looking into this website," John Engates, a private tech official, told NPR. Users can navigate the site just fine, but still be stopped short of completing the full enrollment process. In a worst case scenario, people could think they've obtained coverage, only to find out at the doctor's office that they're uninsured.

"The government really has to deliver on that or else the whole thing is for naught," Engates added. "I mean, we really have to have a system that works from end to end or it really isn't a system."

The back end problem should not come entirely as a surprise. Just two weeks ago, Henry Chao, the administration official in charge of the federal exchange site, said that 30 to 40 percent of the site had yet to be built. In particular, he noted that "the back office systems, the accounting systems, the payment systems" were "still being developed and tested." And the administration confirmed last week that it was setting up a temporary method of managing federal subsidies under the law since the online system needed far more work before it would be ready.

Time isn't on the administration's side. The next big ObamaCare deadline is December 23, the last day people can enroll in coverage that starts at the beginning of the year.

With a smoother user experience, more and more people can now use Healthcare.gov to apply for coverage. Whether or not their requests will be processed correctly, however, is a challenge the administration has yet to prove it can adequately meet.

Jon Terbush is a staff writer for TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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