HealthCare.gov to double capacity by end of month

The HHS tech team expects the site to handle 50,000 users at a time by the end of November

HealthCare.gov, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' troubled insurance-shopping website, will double its user capacity by the end of the month in an effort to eliminate sluggish response times when thousands of people are on the site at the same time, officials said.

The site should be able to handle 50,000 concurrent users by the end of November, and the tech team working on the site expects about 800,000 visits a day by then, said Jeffrey Zients, a former acting director at the White House Office of Management and Budget overseeing fixes to the site.

The site now can handle about 25,000 users at a time before it slows down, although it was unstable at lower volumes in past weeks, he said Friday during a press briefing on the website's progress.

The site was originally intended to handle about 50,000 concurrent users, but fell short in the first weeks of operation, Zients said. "It's important to keep in mind here that this is not a simple website," he added. "It's a complex system doing complicated work. This is much more than a website for browsing or conducting routine transactions."

The site must process "millions upon millions of unique circumstances" that users have, including different insurance needs, plan options and eligibility for insurance subsidies, he said.

In addition to the added capacity, the site will include a user-friendly waiting queue when there are spikes in user volumes, and it will give users an option of getting an email notification of a better time to come back, Zients said. Those features will be available by the end of the month, he said.

HHS announced Friday that it is extending the deadline for U.S. residents to sign up for insurance if they want coverage by Jan. 1, due to the widespread site problems after it launched Oct. 1. The new application deadline for Jan. 1 coverage is Dec. 23, eight days later than the original deadline, said Julie Bataille, communications director for the HHS Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"We realize that many consumers who are seeking coverage in January may have experienced frustration with the site," Bataille said. "We understand that technical challenges have made comparing plans more difficult in the first months, and we want to give consumers as much time as possible."

HealthCare.gov experienced major crashes and sluggish performance in the weeks after its launch, but Zients said Friday the tech team is on track to meet the HHS goal of having it work well for most users by the end of the month. "The system will not work perfectly, but it will operate smoothly for the vast majority of users," he said. "While there will not be a magic moment at the end of the month when our work will be complete, users coming to the site today are already having a greatly improved experience."

The site's error rate when users land on a page was .75 percent this week, down from about 1 percent a week ago and 6 percent just after the site's launch, he said. Page response times were under one second this week, similar to the response in recent weeks, but much lower than eight seconds in the first weeks after launch.

However, the site still crashed twice during the past week, for about three hours on Wednesday and about 10 minutes on Tuesday, not including scheduled overnight outages used for upgrades.

The tech team working on the site has made more than 300 bug fixes and improvements since mid-October, Zients said. The team has 50 priority fixes to work on next week, he said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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