TAMPA — The Obama administration promised "significant improvements" in accessing the federal health overhaul website this week, after taking down the system for maintenance over the weekend. But many in Florida were still unable to enroll.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday during a meeting in Tampa that programmers are taking the website down at night, during periods of low use, in order to fix the technology flaws and update software.
"We are working really around the clock," she said. "We have made a lot of progress. Today is better than yesterday and we're hoping in the very near future to have a seamless process."
President Barack Obama and his staff have downplayed the technology flaws and said delays reflected the public's huge interest in the website. There were 7 million visits to HealthCare.gov in the first two days. But federal health officials acknowledged problems beyond just high web traffic.
"The volume actually identified some additional features," said Sebelius. "We're a week in to a 26 week process. I am confident in the very near future that we will have it flowing smoothly."
Technicians were adding equipment to expand the site's capacity and making software changes that had already cut wait times in half since Friday.
"Call center wait times are seconds, not minutes, and people have been enrolling over the phone 24/7," Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said in a written statement.
The technology fixes could be crucial to the early perceived success of the Affordable Care Act as federal health officials try to capitalize on the hype surrounding "Obamacare."
Experts say it's critical to deal with those issues in the first two weeks, noting consumers are typically very forgiving in the early phase.
"If within the first seven to 14 days there's a lot of problems and they recover from it, everybody forgets about it," said Jay Dunlap, senior vice president of health care technology company EXL. "But if you have a stigma attached to you that it doesn't really work well, (consumers) really become frustrated and they will not come back to that site to try second, third fourth time."
Sebelius got a brief update from counselors, also known as navigators, from the University of South Florida, which received the largest grant in the state to help enroll people. She also heard from two Tampa-area students who previously did not have health insurance and are excited about being able to buy coverage.
Sebelius and the USF navigators declined to give enrollment figures, saying that they would release statistics at the end of the month. She said the website has received five to six times the amount of traffic that the government's Medicare site has ever had in simultaneous users.
"Should we have predicted it, maybe we could have done a better job," she said. "Probably we should have had projections way beyond that."
A community health center in Miami said it was able to enroll a small number of people on Oct. 1 for about 20 minutes before the site crashed. Cigna insurance agents were also able to enroll what they referred to as a trickle of consumers.
But across the state, consumers and navigators are largely frustrated even though federal health officials sent out a statement Friday headlined, "Health Insurance Marketplace Open for Business - Week One Success."
John Foley, an attorney and certified counselor for Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said he's worried consumers will lose faith in the system.
"Hopefully our rescheduled consumers will still be interested (this) week," he said.
"In a few spots we have had some people begin to get frustrated as they came back for appointments and still cannot complete the online processing. They are not blaming the centers, but are very anxious to get online. They also know that there is plenty of time," said Andy Behrman, president and CEO of Florida Association of Community Health Centers.
Many navigators groups are using paper applications or taking down contact information to schedule appointments when the website is working smoothly. A spokesman for the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida said they were having limited success with paper applications.
Consumers have until Dec. 15 to enroll for coverage that starts Jan. 1. They have until the end up March to sign up to avoid tax penalties.
Carolyn Newman, a 50-year-old breast cancer survivor, hasn't been able to access the website yet, but says she isn't worried. She's tried unsuccessfully to purchase insurance for seven years, but was repeatedly turned down because of her pre-existing condition. She was able to get a $1,270 a month plan through the state's high risk pool. The cost will drop to $640 starting in January because the new federal health law bars insurers from charging more for pre-existing conditions.