Obama administration on glitches: ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’

Liz Goodwin
Yahoo News
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The Obama administration defended its rollout of glitch-ridden online health care exchanges on Tuesday, saying an unusually high number of interested visitors were to blame for the site’s outages.

“It's kind of like people who are trying to get tickets to the first Pirates home playoff game, right?” said White House press secretary Jay Carney at a briefing on Tuesday. “I mean, you know when you go on a site and it's hard to load the page that it's because a lot of people like you want to find out if tickets are available. And the great news about this is it's not one game, it's not one night.” (Consumers have six months to enroll on the site.)

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, compared the problems with the site to Apple’s latest operating system, which had a small bug in it that the company later fixed. “I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads — or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t,” he said in a brief address in the Rose Garden.

Tuesday was the launch of the centerpiece of Obama’s 2010 health care law: online insurance marketplaces where consumers can purchase coverage and see if they qualify for a federal subsidy to offset the cost. Uninsured people will face a fine in 2014 on their taxes if they don’t purchase coverage.

Health officials won’t say how many consumers were prevented from shopping or purchasing insurance in the exchange’s first day of operation. Nearly 3 million people visited HealthCare.gov — the main portal for purchasing insurance — between midnight Monday and 3 p.m. Tuesday, they said. The 24/7 call center received more than 80,000 calls for assistance, and the support team fielded 60,000 online help chats over the same period.

Many potential customers in the 36 states where the exchanges are run by the federal government received a variety of error messages that told them the system was overloaded on Tuesday. Some state-run exchanges, like those in Hawaii and Maryland, were down entirely. New York’s exchange was put out of commission after 10 million people flooded the site, an unusually high amount of traffic that state officials can’t yet explain.

Health and Human Services officials told reporters on Tuesday that they could not say how many customers received the error messages nor how many people eventually signed up for coverage on the site. They said the high volume of traffic was partly responsible for the site’s bugs.

“We are certainly very pleased with the remarkable interest we have seen,” said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), when a reporter pressed her on why the administration hadn’t anticipated and prepared for the response.

“While this is the first day you can sign up, it's certainly not the last,” said Marilyn Tavenner, CMS’s administrator, on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “This is Day One of a process. We're in a marathon, not a sprint.”