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With November Ending, Taking Stock Of's Progress


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

President Obama pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey today. Now the question is whether the government's new health insurance website will also get a reprieve. After a disastrous rollout eight weeks ago, the White House says it's on track to have the site working smoothly for most users by this weekend. Many consumers say they have seen improvements to the site. But others are still hitting roadblocks.

Meanwhile, an already overdue website for small businesses to buy health insurance was postponed today for a full year. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hundreds of hardware and software technicians have been working to salvage the government's new insurance website. For Angie Flynn-McIver of Asheville, North Carolina, those efforts paid off. Flynn-McIver has been eager to find an affordable insurance policy to cover her family of four. So eager, she logged on to the new government website the very day it launched.

ANGIE FLYNN-MCIVER: I got as far as the screen that has the security questions and then it was just completely non-responsive. And I tried a couple of different times and then decided to check back another day.

HORSLEY: She kept checking back, again and again, all through October and early November, without success. Finally, last week she logged on and found something new, a website that seemed to be working properly.

FLYNN-MCIVER: Like any other website, actually. It fired right up. And I was able to compare plans and even save things and go back later and just the way you want a website to act.

HORSLEY: Flynn-McIver was able to purchase insurance that covers a lot more than her old policy and, thanks to a government subsidy, it will actually cost less. Ryan Rhea of Memphis was hoping for a similar experience. He just turned 41 and figures he and his wife need better coverage than the catastrophic plan they have now. So far, though, Rhea's efforts to navigate have been unsuccessful.

RYAN RHEA: I've tried it about 12 times at least to get through all the steps and I finally got through all of the steps. But as soon as I click the button to look at what my eligibility is, I get a blank screen. And it does that every time.

HORSLEY: It's been especially galling to Ray since he and his wife are website developers.

RHEA: I just can't believe some of the mistakes that they made, some really amateur stuff that went on with that site. First rodeo stuff, you know, they should have known better.

HORSLEY: In late October, President Obama tapped longtime management consultant Jeffrey Zients to fix the website. Zients set a deadline of November 30th to have the site working smoothly for the vast majority of users. As that date has gotten closer, Zients said it's not an endpoint for the repair effort.

JEFFREY ZIENTS: While there will not be a magic moment at the end of the month when our work will be complete, users coming to the site today are already having a greatly improved experience. And the site will be better at the end of the month than it is today and it'll continue to improve thereafter.

HORSLEY: So far, repair crews have focused their efforts on the website's front end, the part that consumers see. But fixes are also needed for the back-office functions that tell insurance companies who's signing up. Robert Zirkelbach, who is with an insurance industry trade group, says companies are still getting enrollment messages with inaccurate, duplicate or missing information.

ROBERT ZIRKELBACH: What we want to avoid is a situation where consumers think they're enrolled, but because of the back-end challenges, the health plan never received their enrollment, weren't able to process it and ultimately the consumer isn't able to take advantage of the benefits their plan provides.

HORSLEY: Today, the Health Department announced that another part of the website that was supposed to let small businesses sign up for health insurance won't be ready for another year. In the meantime, businesses can sign up directly with insurance companies or through a broker. Even when the individual site is working better, the White House says some people will still need assistance in choosing among the various plans. Sixty-two-year-old Linda Carr of Leesburg, Florida was grateful she got help from a navigator.

LINDA CARR: I get a little bit intimidated, especially with computer issues. He was able to just get right on there and did find a policy.

HORSLEY: With a subsidy, Carr's insurance will cost about $95 a month. She was able to sign up in just over two hours. Martha Freeman also wants to sign up but keeps hitting roadblocks. At one point, the computer asked for proof of her children's incarceration status, though none of her kids is in prison. That's when Freeman called the toll-free helpline.

MARTHA FREEMAN: And I was talking to a lovely woman with a Southern accent. And she said, oh, yeah, the prison glitch. I've heard that before.

HORSLEY: Freeman's trying to be patient as fixes continue to be made to the federal website. But the Philadelphia resident is also looking with envy at some of the state-run sites that seem to be working better. For the first time in my life, Freeman says, I wish I lived in Kentucky. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.