WASHINGTON — Days before the launch of the online health insurance marketplace, government officials and contractors tested a key part of the website to see whether it could handle tens of thousands of consumer users at the same time. It crashed after a simulation in which just a few hundred people tried to log on simultaneously.
Despite the failed test, federal health officials plowed ahead.
When the website went live Oct. 1, it locked up shortly after midnight as about 2,000 users attempted to complete the first step, the Washington Post reported, citing two unnamed people familiar with the project.
As new details emerged about early warning signs of serious deficiencies in HealthCare.gov, President Barack Obama on Monday gave a consumer-friendly defense of the health care law, insisting that the problems many Americans have faced in trying to enroll in health insurance plans will be fixed quickly.
"There's no sugarcoating it: The website is too slow; people have been getting stuck during the application process," he said at a White House event.
At the same time, he admonished Republican critics of the federal insurance exchange, saying that "it is time to stop rooting for its failure."
The president's remarks reflected rising anxiety within the administration over the widening problems with the online enrollment process.
"There's no excuse for the problems," he said, "and they are being fixed."
Obama said government officials are "doing everything we can possibly do" to repair the site, including 24-hour work from "some of the best IT talent in the country."
"No one is madder about the website than I am, which means it's going to get fixed," he added.
White House officials said Monday that the problems have not caused the administration to consider delaying the law's individual mandate, which requires that most Americans have health insurance next year or pay a fine.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday shows that a majority of Americans, 56 percent, believe that the website's flaws reflect larger problems with the health care law, an alarming figure for the administration. But support for the law is growing despite the enrollment issues, with 46 percent of Americans saying they support it now, compared with 42 percent who said so last month.
Congressional Republicans have called for the firing of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over the enrollment problems. House Republicans have been pressuring her to testify before the Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday to answer questions about the health care rollout. Sebelius, who is scheduled to be in Phoenix that day, agreed Monday night to appear on Oct. 30 instead.
Several companies working on HealthCare.gov have confirmed that they will send representatives to the hearing. They include two of the main contractors, CGI Federal and Quality Software Services Inc., a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, as well as Serco, which is handling paper applications, and Equifax, which is dealing with some of the income verification.
There were ample warning signs that the system was not working properly, according to people familiar with the project.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, the federal agency in charge of running the health insurance exchange in 36 states, invited about 10 insurers to give advice and help test the website.
About a month before the exchange opened, this testing group urged agency officials not to launch it nationwide because it was still riddled with problems, the Post reported, citing an insurance IT executive who was close to the rollout.
It was clear, the executive said, that the CMS was still dealing with the way the exchange handled enrollment, federal subsidies and the security of consumers' personal information.
One key problem was that the agency assumed the role of managing the 55 contractors involved and had not ensured that all the pieces were working together, the Post reported, citing a person close to the project.
Some key testing of the system did not take place until the week before launch, according to this person. As late as Sept. 26, there had been no tests to determine whether a consumer could complete the process from beginning to end: create an account, determine eligibility for federal subsidies and sign up for a health insurance plan, according to two sources familiar with the project.
"We are working around the clock to identify issues with the site, diagnose them and fix them," said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for Health and Human Services. "We know the site is working significantly better than it was on day one, with more people able to get through the process and enroll every day, but we still have more work to do."
White House officials said Monday that it was premature to talk about delaying the individual mandate for those who did not obtain insurance because of enrollment problems. Press secretary Jay Carney said the law already provides a way of removing the tax penalty for those who could not sign up for coverage.
"The issue is, do you have access to affordable health insurance? And the individual responsibility provision is there for those individuals who, even though they have access to affordable health insurance, do not purchase it and therefore are held responsible for that," he said. "The law addresses that as written."