October 1st was the day. The US government may have shutdown, but despite the best efforts of Tea Party Republicans, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's centerpiece — the state and Federal health exchanges where people can shop for insurance coverage — is open for business.
Sort of. Some if the sites — including the federal flagship Website Healthcare.gov — were mired with problems on the first day.
Would-be insurance shoppers were often met with the message, "We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we're working to make your experience here better. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience!"
People were often then redirected to a page with the message, "The System is down at the moment. We're working to resolve the issue as soon as possible. Please try again later."
The program's official Twitter feed was already apologizing for the site's defects by 9:41 AM Eastern time, "Thanks for all your comments and updates as you enroll. We apologize that wait times on the site and hotline are longer than expected!"
So what was the problem? The government shutdown? Bad Website design? Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks? Hacking? The answer appears to have been none of the above.
The real reason why the site was so dysfunctional, according to the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department, is that more people than the department had expected were trying to use the site.
An official at HHS said, "We have built a dynamic system and are prepared to make adjustments as needed and improve the consumer experience. This new system will allow millions of Americans to access quality, affordable health care coverage – without underwriting. Consumers who need help can also contact the call center, use the live chat function, or go to localhelp.healthcare.gov to find an in-person assistor in their community." These fall-backs also appeared to be overwhelmed.
In a 4PM ET press conference, Marilyn Tavenner, the Administrator for the HHS' Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said that there were "more simultaneous users on the health exchanges than we'd ever seen on Medicare.gov. 2.8 million people visited sites since midnight." To put that into perspective, Hall added that there were "7 times more simultaneous users on the Federal health exchange Website than the highest number ever of simultaneous users on Medicare.gov site."
So, Tavenner, who was working today, blamed the problems on the "typical launch day glitches" and "overwhelming traffic ." To combat it, HHS is adding capacity and fixing glitches in the site as they occur."
The single biggest problem, besides simply being unable to reach the site successfully, has been the drop-down menu on security questions. The HHS is working on fixing this.
It wasn't just the national site. "Several states incurring similar traffic problems," said Tavenner. "Hawaii and Maryland are having technical issues they are working to resolve soon."
So, what should you do for now? While HHS is adding calculators and other non-interactive Website tools to help people get an idea how much they'll end up paying, perhaps your best move is to simply wait out the first rush of potential insurance buyers. Once this is over the site will be more responsive.
With a tip of the hat to Pam Baker, editor of FierceBigData, for her help with reporting this story.