Obama administration officials expressed confidence Wednesday that the government's healthcare website will work far more quickly and dependably this year, cutting in half the time needed for most people to apply for insurance.
In contrast to last year's disastrous launch of the healthcare.gov website, in which the government had only a few days to perform full tests of the site, the final stage of "end-to-end" testing for this year's site began Tuesday, 5 1/2 weeks before open enrollment begins Nov. 15.
"We're doing all kinds of testing" to ensure "a successful consumer experience," said Andy Slavitt, the federal official who oversees operations of the online insurance marketplace.
Beginning Nov. 9, consumers in states using the federal site will be able to sign on and begin browsing to see which health plans are available in their areas and to compare prices. Some aspects of the site that don't directly affect consumers, particularly the parts which involve payments to insurance companies, won't be fully operational until early next year, however, officials said.
About 70% of consumers will be able to use a new streamlined version of the website that will cut to 16 the number of pages one needs to click through, down from 76 last year, officials told reporters at a briefing that included a live demonstration of the site.
The government has been trying out the new site since July, using it for some consumers who were able to sign up outside the normal enrollment period because of special circumstances, such as the loss of a job or the birth of a child.
For the 30% of consumers whose complicated personal situations won't allow them to use the streamlined version, the older system will remain automatically available. The government also plans to hire additional staff members for call centers to provide help, said Kevin Counihan, the chief executive for the online marketplace.
Ultimately, officials hope to increase the percentage of people who can use the streamlined system, but doing so this fall would have cut unacceptably into the time allowed for testing the site, Slavitt said.
About 8 million people signed up for healthcare plans under the Affordable Care Act by the end of the first open enrollment period this spring, with 7.3 million paying their premiums and remaining covered by late this summer.
That initial enrollment achieved one of the main goals of President Obama's healthcare law: significantly shrinking the percentage of Americans without insurance. But White House officials concede that the administration faces a tougher job in expanding that number this year, in part because they assume that most of the people with the greatest motivation to get insurance, including those with existing health problems, already have signed up.
Creating an "easier and more satisfying consumer experience" will be key to success in the second year, Counihan said.
Among the chief improvements to the site, beyond the streamlined format, are changes in technology that will allow the system to collect a person's information and then contact the central data hub once, at the end of the process, rather than doing so at each page. Officials hope that will eliminate most of the lengthy holds that plagued the process last time.
That is "how a modern website should work," said Slavitt, who was one of the key officials brought in last year to rescue the site after its initial meltdown.
The new system should also be more robust and capable of handling significantly more traffic than the peak days during the winter and spring, Slavitt said. And the initial process of verifying a person's identity, which he said was "the element of the site that had the least amount of stability" in the first go-round, has been redesigned and improved.
The new version of the website is also designed to work well on smartphones and other mobile devices, which Counihan said was a top priority for consumers.
Nearly three-quarters of Latino consumers, who are a major target for enrollment this year, and 80% of young Americans use smartphones, officials said, noting that last year about one-in-five coverage applications were done on mobile devices.
People who have signed up for health insurance under the law will be automatically re-enrolled in their current plans for next year, but Counihan said the government would be urging people to go back to the site to shop around, since in many parts of the country, new, less expensive plans are now being offered.