NEW YORK — Federal contractors have identified most of the main problems crippling President Obama’s online health insurance marketplace, but the administration has been slow to issue orders for fixing those flaws, and some contractors worry that the system may be weeks away from operating smoothly, people close to the project say.
Administration officials approached the contractors last week to see if they could perform the necessary repairs and reboot the system by Nov. 1. However, that goal struck many contractors as unrealistic, at least for major components of the system. Some specialists working on the project said the online system required such extensive repairs that it might not operate smoothly until after the Dec. 15 deadline for people to sign up for coverage starting in January, although that view is not universally shared.
In interviews, experts said the technological problems of the site went far beyond the roadblocks to creating accounts that continue to prevent legions of users from even registering. Indeed, several said, the login problems, though vexing to consumers, may be the easiest to solve. One specialist said that as many as 5 million lines of software code may need to be rewritten before the website runs properly.
“The account creation and registration problems are masking the problems that will happen later,” said one person involved in the repair effort.
The scrambling underscores the pressures on the administration to fix what is widely viewed as the president’s biggest domestic achievement. Millions of Americans have spent countless hours in frustration trying to use the federal website, and its extensive problems have become a political crisis for the administration, providing new opportunities for Republicans who want to roll back the health care law.
One major problem slowing repairs, people close to the program say, is that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency in charge of the exchange, is responsible for making sure that the separately designed databases and pieces of software from 55 contractors work together. It is not common for a federal agency to assume that role, and numerous people involved in the project said the agency did not have the expertise to do the job and did not fully understand what it entailed.
The people close to the project spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the system’s problems.
Administration officials have been debating whether to designate one or more companies as the quarterback for information technology work on the federal exchange, a complex project that has cost more than $400 million.
Communications between the administration and its contractors improved over the weekend as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began negotiating written agreements with contractors on responsibility and deadlines for the repairs, those people say. They hope to have a repair plan before a congressional hearing set for Thursday.
“The issue right now is between CMS and the White House,” a specialist said Friday before communications improved. “Everybody sits and waits and the meter runs.”
A part of the system, hidden from users, draws data from several federal and state databases to determine if consumers qualify for coverage and then calculates the subsidies for which they may be eligible. Another part of the system sends enrollment data to insurers. Several people involved in the project said that problems like those of the last three weeks were not uncommon when software from several companies is combined into a large, complex system.
Insurance executives said in interviews that they were frustrated because they did not know the government’s plan or schedule for repairs. Insurers have found that the system provides them with incorrect information about some enrollees, repeatedly enrolls and cancels the enrollments of others, and simply loses the enrollments of still others.
Correcting those errors, specialists said, could require extensive rewriting of software code. Insurers said it could be weeks before their data and the federal government’s could be reconciled.
Accurate enrollment data is essential.