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Report: Healthcare website failed test ahead of rollout

By Ed Payne, Matt Smith and Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 9:03 PM EDT, Tue October 22, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Top White House official part of "tech surge" on Obamacare
  • Obamacare "is not failing" despite website woes, White House spokesman says
  • Obama says HealthCare.gov problems are "going to get fixed"
  • Secretary Sebelius expected to testify at a congressional hearing next week

Washington (CNN) -- The President's healthcare sign-up web page was supposed to handle tens of thousands of people at once. But in a trial run days before its launch, just a few hundred users flatlined the site.

Despite the problems, federal health officials pushed aside the crash cart and rolled out HealthCare.gov on October 1 as planned, The Washington Post reported.

The result? The website crashed shortly after midnight as a couple thousand people tried to start the process, two people familiar with the project told the Post.

The report is the latest criticism of the problem-plagued site -- criticism so acute that even President Barack Obama said there was " no sugarcoating" the difficulties Americans have faced trying to sign up for insurance coverage.

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"Nobody's madder than me about the website not working as well as it should, which means it's going to get fixed," Obama said during an appearance Monday at the White House Rose Garden.

But he didn't specify exactly what went wrong or who was to blame for the problems, which include long waits to log onto the federally administered website and maddeningly long wait times once online.

There's "no excuse for the problems," Obama said. But he said tech industry experts were being brought in to help workers trying to fix the site.

Call it more fuel for the fire as the GOP continues its quest to defund the new health care system, popularly known as Obamacare.

The Energy and Commerce Committee in the Republican-controlled House wants some answers. Website and administrative contractors CGI, Serco and Equifax are set to testify Thursday on their roles in the technical fiasco.

Website's $300 million price tag

The GOP has Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in its crosshairs, calling for her resignation. She has a date with the committee on October 30.

Sebelius announced Tuesday that Jeff Zients, a former private sector CEO who also has headed the White House Office Management and Budget, is part of the "tech surge" coming to help her department deal with the enrollment problems.

Other experts include "veterans of top Silicon Valley companies," Sebelius wrote in a blog post on the department website.

The goal was a "cross-functional team ... working aggressively to diagnose parts of HealthCare.gov that are experiencing problems, learn from successful states, prioritize issues, and fix them," the blog post said.

Sebelius also said the contractors hired to create Healthcare.gov, including lead company CGI, were providing additional people and unspecified "commitments" for the project "within the provisions of their existing contract."

White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the program on CNN's "Piers Morgan Live," saying that while HealthCare.gov is struggling, the administration's health care reform "is not failing."

People who are able to submit applications through whatever means are happy with the results, he said.

"Health insurance provides security that a lot of these families haven't had in the past," Carney said.

Looking at the bottom line

Democratic strategist and pollster Cornell Belcher agrees, telling CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" that people need to look at the bottom line.

"Millions upon millions of American families who work every day who can't afford healthcare and who are one sickness away from bankruptcy will now have an opportunity to get healthcare," he said. "That is the value."

GOP strategist Kevin Madden sees if differently, blaming it on "Big Government."

"All Americans believed that we need healthcare reform. Where Republicans and Democrats differed on was the way we went about it," he said on "AC360." "I think that the way Democrats went about it, which is one big federal government-centric plan is obviously not working. It's hurting many folks."

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday showed that 56% of respondents consider the website difficulties a harbinger of broader problems with the Affordable Care Act, a constant target of conservative critics who consider it the epitome of big government overreach.

Have you had trouble signing up? Let us know

The law 'working just fine'

In the Rose Garden Monday, Obama said "the essence of the law" -- aimed at providing access to health insurance for the roughly 48 million Americans without it -- "is working just fine."

"In some cases, actually, it's exceeding expectations. The prices are lower than expected, and the choice is greater than we expected," he said.

"But the problem has been that the website that's supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody," he continued. "There's no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow. People are getting stuck during the application process."

HealthCare.gov: What works, what doesn't

Other Republicans kept up their attacks on the health care reforms on Monday, with the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeting that when a visit to the Obamacare website made a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles seem pleasant, "it's time for the President to consider delaying this rushed effort."

Through the pipeline

Obama administration officials have highlighted the fact that nearly 500,000 people have filled out applications for Obamacare, though the number who purchased coverage remains unknown. Initial difficulties have started to ease for logging on to the website for the new exchanges, some of which are run by states and others by the federal government.

Logging in tough for some early registrants

The administration is still not releasing the numbers on how many people have taken the next step of enrolling: choosing a specific health care plan. The administration has said it will do that monthly, so the first tally of enrollment numbers will come in November.

The Congressional Budget Office has said it expects 7 million people to enroll by April 1.

Although March 31 is the deadline for people to get health insurance or face a fine, officials warn that failure to sign up by February 15 could be a problem because of the time needed for the coverage to take effect. Carney told reporters on Monday afternoon that lingering problems in signing people up could result in relief, noting that the law makes clear that "if you do not have access to affordable health insurance, you will not have to pay a penalty for not having affordable health insurance."

Hope for a smoother ride on HealthCare.gov

A ConsumerReports.org article last week offered tips for people trying to sign up, but had the following advice for those overwhelmed by the difficulties:

"If all this is too much for you to absorb, follow our previous advice: Stay away from HealthCare.gov for at least another month if you can. Hopefully that will be long enough for its software vendors to clean up the mess they've made."

But in a statement issued Monday night, the group said its criticism of the website doesn't mean it now opposes the Affordable Care Act. Critics of Obamacare are misrepresenting the nonprofit organization's position, Consumer Reports said.

5 things that have happened since Obamacare launched

CNN's Paul Steinhauser, Kevin Bohn, Jim Acosta, Adam Aigner-Treworgy, Brian Todd and Dugald McConnell contributed to this report.

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