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Available On Air Stations Uses Waiting Room To Cool Traffic Surge


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. As with other e-commerce sites, Cyber Monday was a busy one for the It brought a surge in traffic to the government's beleaguered health insurance website.

Later today, President Obama will give a speech detailing the work of the technical teams who have been patching bugs and expanding capacity. But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, there were periods yesterday when some users found themselves sitting in the website's waiting room.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Federal officials were bracing for a burst of business on Monday, and they got it. Julie Bataille, who's with the government office that oversees, says between midnight and noon yesterday, some 375,000 people logged onto the website to try to shop for insurance.

JULIE BATAILLE: That's roughly twice the size of what we had been seeing on a typical Monday. We tend to have peak use between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays. And mornings, evenings and weekends tend to be lower volumes of traffic.

HORSLEY: The surge in business Monday tested the website's new capacity. After weeks of software fixes and hardware upgrades, the site is supposed to be able to handle 50,000 users at one time. But yesterday, its performance began to suffer with only about 35,000 users. So, website operators pushed the overflow crowd into a virtual waiting room. There, users are given the option of waiting for traffic to thin out, or leaving an email address for instructions on a better time to try again.

BATAILLE: In order to manage demand and ensure a smooth user experience for those in the system, the team instituted the new queuing process so that those moving forward in the application and shopping system would be able to do so smoothly and maximize their own user experience

HORSLEY: Web designers have also beefed up the window-shopping feature so users can compare insurance plans before they actually apply for coverage.

Lindsay Brand is just the kind of young, healthy person the government wants to enroll through its insurance exchange. For weeks, though, the part-time professor and Missouri mom had been unable to sign up. She tried again just before Thanksgiving, eager to get a jump on this week's rush.

LINDSAY BRAND: I knew that they were going to try to really promote it heavily, because they kept talking about how you should go to Thanksgiving and talk about signing up - which, in my family, in Missouri, would be a horrible idea.

HORSLEY: Brand managed to steer clear of Obamacare discussions at the Thanksgiving table. And by creating a new log-in for the government's website, she finally managed to enroll in an insurance plan with her infant daughter. The policy offers cheaper co-pays than the coverage she had before.

BRAND: Now I can take her and I can have peace of mind, and I don't have to spend - like, instead of spending $30 to go, it's now $10.

HORSLEY: Not everyone's managed to get that far. While the Obama administration said over the weekend about 80 percent of users will be able to navigate the site successfully, Leanne Hooker remains stuck in an endlessly repeating loop.

LEANNE HOOKER: It's been frustrating. I've spent a lot of time getting to the end, where you submit the application, and it goes back to the beginning, every time.

HORSLEY: Officials say they're continuing to weed out software bugs, including one that's thought to be responsible for many of the error-filled enrollment forms sent to insurance companies.

Even as this week's surge in traffic creates new challenges for the website, it also shows the persistent demand for insurance, despite the problems of the last two months. Hooker insists she'll keep trying to find an affordable policy. The self-employed mother of two from Kansas says: I'm not going to give up.

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.