Obamacare Websites Scrambling to Handle High Demand

Heavier-than-expected traffic, mostly involving people confused about the new law, jammed network routers, blew out servers, and generally slowed the launch of the program.

Despite having almost three years to prepare for the implementation of President Barack Obama's health care reform measures, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a majority of the new health care insurance marketplace Websites struggled Oct. 1 to do their jobs under an onslaught of inquiries from the general public.

Heavier-than-expected Internet traffic, mostly involving people confused about the new law, jammed network routers, blew out servers and generally slowed the launch of the program, illustrating in painful detail the challenge of serving millions of uninsured Americans at one time via the Web.

The ACA, commonly known as Obamacare, will provide subsidized health insurance based on income through the online state exchanges and expand Medicaid coverage for the poor starting Jan. 1, 2014. New users must enroll by Dec. 15 to be covered on Jan. 1.

As a result, ACA has been described by legislators and health care officials as the most ambitious U.S. social program since Medicare plans for the elderly were launched in the 1960s.

The Department of Health and Human Services told Reuters that 2.8 million people had visited the federal HealthCare.gov on Oct.1, with 81,000 reaching out to call centers and 60,000 requesting live chats.

The department did not provide details on the source of the traffic or the number of visitors who applied for health insurance, but said it was working to speed up the site.

"We think we're off to a good start," Marilyn Tavenner, director of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the new exchange, told the wire service. A high number of insurance inquirers probably wouldn't agree with that assessment.

As of early Oct. 2, Bloomberg news reported that about one-quarter of the 50 insurance exchange Websites were still down or were running very slowly. Reuters reported late on Oct.1 that frequent error messages or traffic overload notices were common, particularly for 36 of the sites operated by the federal government.

A common problem involved users calling up the Websites but being unable to enter queries or other information. Another frequently observed issue involved a page asking the user to answer security questions that either went blank or would not accept new data.

Kansas state officials asked residents to wait a few weeks for bugs to be worked out before enrolling, Reuters said. Other states were doing the same.

The early performance of state-run exchanges was mixed, with users in Connecticut, Rhode Island and California able to create profiles, Reuters said. Kentucky reported that it had processed more than 1,000 insurance applications, while Colorado said 1,300 user accounts had been created. Maryland delayed its launch by hours. When it went live, access stalled for some users.

The Associated Press reported Oct. 2 that Massachusetts was one of the earliest states to launch an updated version of its Commonwealth Health Connector Website. State officials said visits to the Website were "brisk" and, despite a few glitches, more than 400 people had begun the application process for insurance in the first few hours.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...