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Late-Nov. deadline set for health insurance website fixes

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's troubled health insurance website will be running smoothly for the "vast majority" of users by the end of November, administration officials said Friday, for the first time setting a public deadline for fixing the problematic centerpiece of President Obama's health-care law.

"Healthcare.gov is fixable," Jeffrey Zients, an economic adviser brought in to manage the repair project, told reporters Friday. "It will take a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed, but let me be clear: Healthcare.gov is fixable."

Zients announced that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had hired a general contractor to manage the troubleshooting. QSSI Inc., a unit of United HealthGroup and one of three major contractors on the project, will take over the job from CMS, which has been criticized as in over its head in trying to manage the complicated project.

CMS spokeswoman Julie Baitille said the agency is modifying an existing contract to expand QSSI's duties. She did not disclose the estimated cost of the work.

Administration officials have been scrambling to fix and explain the many problems with the website that determines if consumers are eligible for tax credits and connects them with affordable health insurance plans. Since its Oct.1 rollout, the site has shut out millions of users because of a broken registration system and problems with the application function.

A late-November target date for repairs is slightly sooner than some have predicted. Contractors who worked on the site told lawmakers Thursday that they believe it could be functioning well by Dec. 15, the last day consumers can enroll for coverage that begins Jan. 1.

The deadline for signing up for insurance without a penalty is March 31, officials said.

Zients told reporters that a review of the site's problems turned up a list of "dozens" of unresolved issues dealing with functionality and performance. At the top of the list is a problem with garbled and incorrect data being sent to insurers, he said.

QSSI would take the lead in working through the list, he said.

"There will be a relentless focus on speed and execution to work through the punch list," he said.

The White House called in Zients, a former chief executive and government-efficiency expert, to conduct the review and chart a plan for repairs. Zients would not disclose detail of the data turned up in his review, but acknowledged that, in the very first days of the rollout, "very few" people could create accounts on the site. After three weeks of repairs, "We're now at 90 percent of users can create accounts," he said.

The next phase of the process -- the application that determines eligibility for tax credits -- remains "volatile," he said. At times, less than one-third of users could get through the application process, he said.

CMS officials say 700,000 applications have been completed. Roughly half of those were submitted through the federal exchange, the other half through state-run marketplaces.


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