By Devin Dwyer
How would you grade the rollout of HealthCare.gov?
None of the top four Obama administration officials most closely connected to the troubled insurance portal would answer that question today during testimony before a politically charged House Oversight Committee. None even dared to call the website "incomplete."
"That's an interesting question," U.S. chief technology officer Todd Park said. "In terms of the roll-out of the website, you know, it's obviously been really, really rocky. I'd kind of hesitate to assign a letter grade to it, but it's what nobody wanted."
"I agree with Todd," added Henry Chao, the deputy chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "It's highly subjective."
Meanwhile, Park said the federal insurance website is operating at half its intended capacity, capable of "comfortably handling at present about 20,000 to 25,000 concurrent users."
CMS, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Human Services,had designed the system to accommodate 50,000 to 60,000 concurrent users, he said. On Oct. 1, the first day of the website's launch, officials said it was hit with more than 250,000 simultaneous users and effectively crashed.
As the website continues to sputter, the answers from the panel prompted venting from frustrated members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
"We sent over half a billion of taxpayer money and no one who's responsible for the roll-out is willing to say that we should have done things differently?" Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., said.
"From a taxpayer perspective, these are millions of dollars going to a failed product. I don't think they're happy," Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said.
There were no apologies from Chao, Park, U.S. chief information officer Steve VanRoekel or deputy HHS secretary for IT Frank Baitman, although all expressed frustration with how the launch transpired. None gave analysis about what could have been done differently. And none of the panelists offered assurances that the team would meet its Nov. 30 deadline to have it "optimally functional" for the "vast majority" of users.
"When will it be operational? When will it be as good as it can get?" asked Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
"I think the honest answer is that there's a team of incredibly dedicated public servants that are working hard to have the site functioning by the end of this month smoothly for the vast majority of Americans," Park said. "That's the goal that we're working for."
CMS says the problem of creating and registering accounts has "actually largely been solved" and that the system is capable of processing "about 17,000 registrations" per hour. Park also added today that system responsiveness and error rates are improving.
"The average system response time, which is the time it takes, say, a page to render or a request to be fulfilled of a user was eight seconds on average a few weeks ago; it's now under a second," Park said. "Another measure is the system error rate, which is the rate at which you experience errors in the marketplace application, and that was over six percent a few weeks ago. And now it's actually about 1 percent, and actually getting lower than that."
Administration officials have been hinting that their measure on Nov. 30 of what is "working smoothly for the vast majority" of Americans will be response time and error rate. But such metrics do not cover other important factors in the system that allow users to complete applications, make payments and enroll in insurance plans.