J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Published Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 | 3:39 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 | 5:05 p.m.
MIAMI — The HealthCare.gov website will still be a work in progress beyond the end of the month, Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday, appearing to soften a promise that the site will be working by then for the vast majority of users.
"The 30th of November is not a magic go, no go date. It is a work of constant improvement. We have some very specific things we know we need to complete by the 30th and that punch list is getting knocked out every week," Sebelius told The Associated Press.
Sebelius made stops in Orlando and Miami on Tuesday to address the fallout over the new health care law's paltry enrollment figures and continuing website problems.
The Obama administration has staked its credibility on turning HealthCare.gov around by the end of this month. From the president on down, officials have said the website will be running smoothly for the "vast majority of users" by Nov. 30, but have been vague about what that actually means.
The definition has morphed in the past few weeks. At an Oct. 30 congressional hearing, Sebelius projected "an optimally functioning website" by the end of November. On Nov. 5, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, testified that the site would be "fully functioning" by that date.
Last week, President Barack Obama said the "the improvement will be marked and noticeable."
On Tuesday, Sebelius told the AP it would work for most users by the end of the month, but would still require fixes because of the magnitude of the first-of-its-kind project.
"We recognize that there will still be periodic spikes, glitches, whatever that people will experience," she said.
When asked why officials pushed ahead with the Oct. 1 launch date despite warnings the site hadn't been properly tested, Sebelius said they were hoping to give consumers as much time as possible to enroll before coverage begins in January.
"We were hoping to maximize that," she said. "Clearly that was a bad call."
Federal health officials made significant improvements implementing software fixes over the weekend, mostly dealing with the application portion, which had stymied many users. More than 90 percent can now successfully complete their applications, HHS communications director Julie Bataille said.
Sebelius visited Florida Technical College in Orlando before stopping at a Miami hospital where a handful of "navigators" were trying to enroll consumers on the website, but were plagued by embarrassing messages showing the website was stalled even as Sebelius stopped and chatted with them.
The secretary has been traveling the country as the Obama administration has been in damage-control mode, trying to beat back criticism that could make Americans leery of using it.
Last week, federal health officials revealed that just 26,794 people enrolled for health insurance through the federal website during the first, flawed month of operations, and a total of 106,000 nationwide — a small fraction of what they had projected. Florida had the highest enrollment of the three dozen states relying on the federal website with 3,571 people.
Days later, the House voted to weaken a core component of "Obamacare" and permit the sale of individual health coverage that falls short of requirements in the law. More than three dozen Democrats broke ranks and supported the legislation, a total that underscored the growing importance of the issue in the weeks since millions of cancellation notices went out to consumers covered by plans deemed inadequate under government rules.
In the wake of growing criticism over the cancellations, Obama tried to make good on a previous promise, saying those who like their insurance can keep it for one more year. However, the ultimate decision still lies with insurers and state insurance commissioners.
On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, a panel of computer security experts raised another fear — that the website is vulnerable to hacking. They said they wouldn't trust their own personal information to the site, although they acknowledged they don't have firsthand knowledge of the system and its architecture.
David Kennedy, head of the Ohio-based TrustedSec, a company that offers to hack into private systems to determine vulnerabilities, told the House Science Committee that a cursory look at the website revealed multiple "exposures" that put it at "critical risk."
Asked about those concerns, Sebelius said: "I feel like it's safe. Absolutely," adding, "when there have been issues identified or flagged, it's immediately fixed."