New consumer tips for Obama's fixer-upper website

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 6, 2013 at 5:06 pm •  Published: December 6, 2013
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WASHINGTON (AP) — It doesn't rival Amazon and Travelocity, but President Barack Obama's much-maligned health insurance website finally seems to be working reasonably well most of the time.

Still, consumers are well-advised to verify, not just trust.

More than 3.7 million people visited HealthCare.gov this week — and it didn't crash, administration spokeswoman Julie Bataille deadpanned Friday on a call with reporters.

Officials say 29,000 people enrolled the first two days of the week, exceeding total signups for the 36 states served by the federal site during October, the month of its problem-plagued launch.

Online Spanish-language signups, delayed because of initial problems, will finally go live this weekend in a "soft launch" to tease out any lurking glitches. Consumers around the country will be able to use the new feature at CuidadoDeSalud.gov. A promotional campaign in Spanish will follow.

Overall, work has shifted from zapping technical gremlins that frustrated consumers to cleaning up garbled enrollment files that the system has been delivering to insurers.

"The new process put in place this week is making a difference," acknowledged Karen Ignagni, head of the largest industry group, America's Health Insurance Plans. "The enrollment files are getting better, but there is more work to be done to ensure consumers are covered."

While not calling it an "error rate," Bataille says mistakes on those files are now affecting 1 in 10 transactions with insurers, down from an estimated 25 percent. She still recommends that consumers verify enrollment with their insurer, and — importantly— pay their first month's premium by Dec. 31.

The web is now the gateway to subsidized private health insurance for people who don't have job-based coverage. Along with the federal site, 14 states and Washington, D.C., are running their own. As Obama invites consumers back to take a second look, here are some of the changes you can expect:

SPEED AND AVAILABILITY

Independent testers question the blazing Internet speeds claimed by techies at the Health and Human Services Department, and some of the state websites, but confirm there's been noticeable progress.

"The trend is in the right direction ... but there are still things they can do to make the user experience better," said Michael Smith, a vice president of engineering at Compuware Corp., which helps companies monitor the technical performance of their websites.

As of Friday morning, the number of states where consumers are experiencing unacceptably long wait times had been cut to 9, down from 26 states in late October. Conversely, Compuware now rates 17 states as "acceptable," up from just six in October.

Compuware defines "unacceptable" as more than 8 seconds average response time to load the home page. The government claims a response time of less than 1 second. But Smith says that is likely being measured from computers with fast Internet connections and doesn't account for the experience of consumers with less than ideal access, which is incorporated in his company's testing.

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