HealthCare.gov barely worked when it launched last fall, with only six people able to enroll in a plan on opening day. But the new version of HealthCare.gov came out sometime Sunday night, and it's available for window shopping for the first time. A few things to know:
What's different about the site this year?
For starters, it's a working website. Its load times have improved substantially, and the administration says it can handle twice as much traffic volume as last year. For customers shopping for coverage, you actually browse plans — get a sense of what they cost, check eligibility for tax credits (which are under Supreme Court review) and decide whether you want to buy.
Open enrollment doesn't start until Saturday, so if you go to the site today, what can you do there?
Besides window shopping, you can get an estimated eligibility of the tax credit to help lower premium costs. This was nearly impossible in the first version of HealthCare.gov, which made users jump through ridiculous hoops in creating a user profile, and then they ran into error after error until they either gave up or the site crashed on them.
What's the administration doing to prepare for high traffic to the site after open enrollment starts?
They have been working on contingency plans. President Obama talked about it a little last week, saying, "We're really making sure the website works super well. ... We're double- and triple-checking it."
The Washington Post got ahold of internal documents at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees HealthCare.gov, and found there's a new system in place that detects traffic overloads faster. If it works correctly, it will send users into separate online waiting rooms, instead of putting them in one long online queue, which is how things worked last open enrollment.
What other challenges could come up this year?
For every major software system, hacking is always a threat. Just today, the Postal Service disclosed hackers hit its system, getting employee information from tens of thousands. So to protect HealthCare.gov, programmers from the Department of Homeland Security are trying to hack into the site once a day to test its security.
One thing this system hasn't faced before that could be a concern is re-enrollment in health plans. We know that about 8 million people signed up for health insurance through the Obamacare exchanges last year. When the open enrollment period begins Saturday, those folks are going to re-up or choose new plans through HealthCare.gov.
It's also just a shorter open enrollment period. This year, it runs from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15. Last year, it opened earlier and stayed open longer. So you have a much shorter time frame to shop and buy, if you're in the market.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
On Saturday, open enrollment begins for Obamacare. People will be able to purchase health insurance on healthcare.gov. But already the administration is tempering expectations. A government report out today estimates between nine and ten million people will sign up to have coverage for 2015. And that's a big drop - 30 percent below what the Congressional Budget Office projected earlier in the year. But for those thinking about it, the site is now available for window shopping and for more, NPR'S Elise Hu. Hi there, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there, Audie.
CORNISH: So you spent a lot of time with this latest version of the site. What's different?
HU: Well, mainly it's that it's a working website. You can see prices for the first time before creating a profile, and healthcare.gov was so bad last year, as you remember, that only six people were able to enroll in coverage on the first day that it launched. Now its load times have improved. We know it can handle concurrent visitors - reportedly twice as much traffic volume as last year. And users can actually browse plans. You can poke around, get a sense of what plans cost and decide whether you want to buy.
CORNISH: Of course, open enrollment doesn't start until Saturday. Other than poke around, what can you do on the site?
HU: Well, users will be able to get an estimate of the tax credits they might be eligible for under these exchanges. And by the way, those are actually under Supreme Court review right now. But just being able to calculate this eligibility and what tax credits might be available is much different than last year when users had to hit error after error after error in trying to get that far.
CORNISH: And you alluded to some of the problems from last year. What's the administration doing to prepare for high traffic this time around?
HU: Well, they say they have been working on contingency plans. President Obama, in fact, talked about it a little bit last week.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We're really making sure that the website works super well before the next open enrollment period. We're double and triple checking it.
HU: The Washington Post got a hold of internal documents and found there's a new system that detects traffic overloads a little faster. And if it works correctly, it will send users into separate online waiting rooms instead of putting them in one long queue which is what they did last year. And then, traffic may not be as big a problem this year partly because of what you've mentioned - the administration is estimating enrollment to be much lower than the CBO had expected. Analysts say it's an indication the marketplaces actually do need a little bit more time to mature.
CORNISH: If high traffic won't be a problem, what other challenges are out there?
HU: Well, for one, there's hacking. For every major software system hacking is always threat. And just today, the Postal Service disclosed hackers hit its system - getting some employee information. So to protect healthcare.gov, there's actually programmers from the Department of Homeland Security who are trying to hack into healthcare.gov each day to see if they can break in to test its security. And one thing the system hasn't faced before is this notion of re-enrollment in health plans. Now, about 8 million people signed up for the marketplaces last year, and when the open enrollment period begins on Saturday, those folks aren't going to either re-up or choose new plans for 2015. So the system hasn't handled that before. So it's a challenge in that it's an untested, technical process.
CORNISH: NPR's Elise Hu covers technology and culture for us. Elise, thanks so much.
HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.