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Healthcare.gov downtime to grow during 2017 open enrollment

screen capture of HealthCare.gov site 

Uptime for the Healthcare.gov system will decrease during the coming open enrollment period, in part due to a shortened open season, and in part due to an increase in scheduled maintenance.

The HealthCare.gov website, used to access the federal health insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act will be down on Sundays between midnight and noon during the open enrollment period of Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, except Dec. 10.

"Maintenance outages are regularly scheduled on HealthCare.gov every year during open enrollment," a spokesperson from the Department of Health and Human Services told FCW. "This year is no different. The maintenance schedule was provided in advance this year in order to accommodate requests from certified application assisters. System downtime is planned for the lowest-traffic time periods on HealthCare.gov including Sunday mornings."

There is also scheduled downtime overnight on Nov. 1, when open enrollment launches. The HealthCare.gov site is used by customers in 39 states.

HealthCare.gov is much more than just a website – it’s the front door to a complicated ecosystem that allows customers to choose health plans and allows the government to confirm eligibility for coverage. To check eligibility, the site pings databases at IRS, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and elsewhere. Any downtime on any connected system can have an impact on the overall Healthcare.gov uptime.

During the Obama administration, the Office of Management and Budget convened meetings among system owners linked to HealthCare.gov, to schedule maintenance to avoid downtime, former HHS CIO Frank Baitman said in an interview with FCW.

"We sat around a table, rolled up our sleeves and figured out how to minimize downtime," he said.

Baitman is concerned that the Trump administration is not taking the same care to prevent hiccups during its first open enrollment period.

"It's significantly cutting back on the window Americans have to apply for insurance," Baitman said. "It seems willful and it seems neglectful."

Baitman linked the move to increase HealthCare.gov downtime with other administration efforts to withdraw support for enrollment under the ACA, including a 90 percent reduction in the marketing budget around the open enrollment period, advancing the close of enrollment period from Jan. 31 to Dec. 15, and making threats to stop paying cost-sharing reduction subsidies to insurance carriers.

"You know, I said from the beginning, let Obamacare implode and then [replace it]. I turned out to be right. Let Obamacare implode," President Donald Trump said in July after a legislative effort to repeal ACA failed on Capitol Hill.

In the 2016 open enrollment period, HHS achieved more than 99 percent uptime for HealthCare.gov. With the addition of 84 hours of scheduled maintenance, Baitman calculates that overall uptime will drop to 93 percent – not an enviable rate for a 21st century e-commerce service.

"If Amazon.com were available at 93 percent between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the share price would fall and executives would be terminated," he said. "This open enrollment peak season is just like the holiday shopping season for retail – this is what you work for the entire year."

The scheduled downtime given by HHS is the maximum the agency expects system to be down, and it's possible that actual outage times could be less than the 12 hours listed.

Accenture, which currently holds the contract to support the HealthCare.gov marketplace, in the past has boasted in marketing materials of system uptime since it took over contract.

"For the second and third open enrollments, there was no unplanned downtime for any components for which Accenture was responsible," the company noted in a 2016 white paper.

Accenture did not provide comment to FCW about the scheduled HealthCare.gov maintenance by press time.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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