Network Issue Causes Obamacare Outage

Website, Data Hub Working After Weekend Problems Fixed
Network Issue Causes Obamacare Outage

The Obamacare website was functioning again on Oct. 28 after work to replace a failed network component caused an outage over the weekend on the health insurance application and enrollment system of and a data services hub that supports the site.

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Meanwhile, HHS officials are preparing for more Congressional hearings Oct. 29 and 30 on the Obamacare site's technical issues.

The website supports federally-facilitated insurance exchanges of more than 30 states that chose not to independently operate online insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known at Obamacare. The federal data services hub routes data to all the state exchanges from a number of agencies, including the IRS and Social Security Administration, during the eligibility confirmation process for consumers signing up for health insurance coverage online.

At an Oct. 28 press briefing, a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman said the site outage on Oct. 27 was caused when Terremark, a unit of Verizon, was completing work to replace a failed network component that provides connectivity to the site and data hub.

Terremark operates the data center that hosts the website and the federal data services hub. Both were back in service the morning of Oct. 29.

The outage prevented consumers from applying for coverage on the federal site in states not running their own insurance marketplaces. Plus, it caused some disruptions in states that operate their own exchanges but still depend on the federal data hub for consumer eligibility processes.

Unusual Outage?

Kev Coleman, who heads research and data at HealthPocket Inc., a technology and research firm that ranks health plans, questions the severity of the problems causing the weekend outage.

"It's unusual for a website with millions of users across the nation to go down due to a single point of failure," he says. "Typically, server hosting is distributed across multiple locations to avoid such a scenario. This allows regional traffic to be rerouted to a new data center if the region's data center is inoperable."

In theory, the fixes to the website should not increase the likelihood of outages so long as appropriate regression testing procedures are used on a test environment that is a perfect mirror of the production environment, Coleman says. "However, I do not have information that would allow me to confirm that this is the case for," he notes.

Work Continues

In the meantime, CMS and a management team put in place last week continue to work with a number of vendors to address "a punch-list" of technical issues that have plagued the site since it first launched for open enrollment on Oct. 1, the CMS spokeswoman says.

Enhanced monitoring tools are now being used to provide "a high level" look at what's going on in the website in terms of performance issues and consumer experience problems, she says.

Since last week, two improvements have been made, she says. The processing times for consumers to view and filter health plans on the have been reduced from minutes to seconds. And the site now correctly displays consumers' eligibility notices when they're done with the eligibility process.

By the end of November, CMS expects the site "will be working smoothly," she says. Last week, government officials said they expected the vast majority of consumers to be able to enroll in health plans via the site by Nov. 15 for coverage that begins on Jan 1, 2014.

Last week, President Obama said the Department of Health and Human Services was assembling a "tech surge" of experts called in to address the technical problems. Optum/Quality Software Solutions Inc., a unit of United Healthcare, was selected to lead the work. Also, Jeffery Zients, a former official at the office of management and budget, was appointed by Obama to head the effort.

Testimony This Week

Meanwhile, top HHS officials will be grilled this week in congressional hearings about the website problems. CMS' administrator Marilyn Tavenner will be questioned by the House Ways and Means Committee on Oct. 29, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Oct. 30.

Last week, the Energy and Commerce Committee quizzed officials of four technology services contractors for the Obamacare site. Among the questioning were inquiries about the security and privacy of consumer data on the site (see: Obamacare Website Security Questioned).

During the Oct. 28 press briefing, the CMS spokeswoman said the agency takes "cybersecurity issues seriously" to protect consumer information that's entered into the site as well all the systems involved with the site. Consumer data that's entered into the site is "stored in a safe, encrypted environment," she said.

About the Author

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Executive Editor, HealthcareInfoSecurity, ISMG

McGee is executive editor of Information Security Media Group's media site. She has about 30 years of IT journalism experience, with a focus on healthcare information technology issues for more than 15 years. Before joining ISMG in 2012, she was a reporter at InformationWeek magazine and news site and played a lead role in the launch of InformationWeek's healthcare IT media site.

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