The federal government has shelved plans to move the HealthCare.gov insurance website to a new host, delaying a move that was supposed to fix reliability problems with the site before this year's enrollment season.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services signed a contract last year to replace Verizon Terremark with Hewlett-Packard Co. as the host of HealthCare.gov, the site for most people to obtain health plans under the Affordable Care Act. The Verizon platform had a series of outages last year that forced down the site and affected the federal data hub on which all states rely to transmit information about enrollees' identity and income.
CMS planned to migrate the site to an H-P platform after the main sign-up period finished in March. But in July, the agency quietly moved to keep Verizon hosting most parts of the site for all of the next enrollment season, which starts Nov. 15 and ends Feb. 15. In a federal contract document justifying the decision, the agency said it needed to stick with Verizon because it had run out of time to thoroughly test the H-P platform for the coming year.
The decision raises new questions about whether HealthCare.gov will be ready to offer a better experience to millions of Americans this fall after its troubled debut last year. The move to a different host had been one key part of the site's overhaul strategy, and the decision to stay with Verizon is an unexpected development for insurers and state officials who assumed the change was still going ahead.
A shortened enrollment period, coupled with millions more expected users, means the site will face heavier traffic this year. Contractors are still racing to complete other parts of the site's revamp.
"It's going to be improved, but given all the challenges, it will be far from perfect for open enrollment 2015," said Joel Ario, a former Obama administration health official who is now managing director at Manatt Health Solutions, which consults on implementation of the health law.
Aaron Albright, a spokesman for CMS, said the decision represented "the best path forward to ensure a successful second open enrollment period. It was made in order to improve the consumer experience and have sufficient time for testing." Verizon and H-P declined to comment on the decision.
Verizon was blamed for the outages last year when then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was testifying before a congressional committee about technological problems with the rollout of the law. "It is the Verizon server that failed, not HealthCare.gov," Mrs. Sebelius said at the Oct. 29 hearing.
Verizon has since upgraded its servers and brought in additional staff to better handle the load when open enrollment begins, people familiar with the situation said.
Additionally, Mr. Albright said the agency was taking other steps to manage peak traffic on the site, including transferring around 75% of newcomers to the site to a portion hosted by Amazon Web Services. Those consumers will be using a more streamlined system to create their accounts, designed to reduce strain on the system.
Testing so far suggested that the capacity for this portion of the site had grown significantly but was still likely be maxed out at certain points, forcing users to be held in virtual "waiting rooms," one person familiar with the matter said.
Verizon will continue to host the parts of the site serving up to five million returning enrollees, as well as the other approximately 25% of newcomers. H-P will host a few components of the site, including serving as a backup for the main system.
The federal contract document said that Terremark was capable of supporting the site at its highest volume periods of 2014, which occurred in March, but that it would have to quickly upgrade its capacity for 2015. The decision to stay with Verizon was described as a "short-term bridge" in the document.
During the coming three-month enrollment period, as many as 13 million people are supposed to pick plans through the exchanges, as penalties for not carrying coverage increase in the law's second year and supporters of the law try to extend their reach to a greater number of uninsured people. For 2014, about eight million people picked plans during a six-month enrollment window that ran from Oct. 1 through March.