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White House says 'Obamacare' website will be fixed by end of November

By Caroline Humer and Sharon Begley

(Reuters) - The website for Americans to buy insurance under President Barack Obama's healthcare law should be working smoothly for most users by the end of November, a White House official assigned to fix Healthcare.gov said on Friday.

Jeffrey Zients also told reporters in a conference call that Quality Software Services Inc, or QSSI, will now serve as a general contractor to oversee repairs to the glitch-ridden website.

The administration has not had a technology company overseeing the entire project. Instead, the government decided early on that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, would serve as the system integrator.

Republican critics and technology experts have questioned whether the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had the experience and know-how to handle such a complex task.

Online insurance exchanges launched on October 1 under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, often called "Obamacare," to offer health insurance plans to millions of uninsured people in the United States. But many have experienced error messages and long waits in trying to sign on to Healthcare.gov, which has become a political embarrassment for Obama.

"By the end of November, the vast majority of consumers will be able to successfully and smoothly enroll through Healthcare.gov," Zients said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is battling some Republicans' calls for her resignation, said on Friday that the website has clearly not lived up to its full potential. But she said it is not beyond hope.

"We want to dispel the notion that the website is fatally flawed. It can be fixed and it will be fixed," said Sebelius, speaking at forum on enrollment in the new national healthcare system in San Antonio, Texas.

The White House said last week that Obama still has "full confidence" in Sebelius, whose department is responsible for implementing the law.

Sebelius on Friday said calls for her resignation are coming from lawmakers who "unfortunately have been ferociously opposed to the expansion of healthcare."

QSSI, a unit of health insurer UnitedHealth Group, already has a technology contract related to the website and testified on Thursday to a congressional panel about problems with the system.

QSSI produced the federal data hub and a software tool to register consumers before allowing them to browse, a requirement that caused early logjam problems.

However, Andrew Slavitt, executive vice president with QSSI's parent, testified that it was the administration that did not fully test the website until the last minute and also introduced the account creation feature just 10 days before launch.

'A LOT OF PROBLEMS'

Zients said he had brought in technology experts to establish the problems with the website and to prioritize the repairs.

"It will take a lot of work and there are a lot of problems that will need to be addressed, but the bottom line is that it is fixable," he said.

He said experts had identified "dozens of items" to be fixed in terms of both performance and functionality, and that a problem related to communications with insurers was on the top of the list. He did not provide further details about the nature of the glitches.

Earlier this week, the government told insurers in a meeting that it was working to fix data transmission problems with applications and also with the technology that can allow insurers to directly enroll consumers in exchange plans.

The government expects about 7 million people to enroll for individual insurance in 2014, many of whom are expected to receive government subsidies. Consumers must enroll by mid-December to have insurance on January 1, and those who have not enrolled by the end of March 2014 will have to pay a penalty laid out in the Affordable Care Act.

About 90 percent of people who try to create accounts are able to do so, but the ability to complete an application has been "volatile," Zients said. The government said that about 700,000 Obamacare applications had been filled out across the country but has not provided enrollment figures.

The federal government is running the website for 36 states while 14 other states have built their own exchanges to sell insurance policies under Obamacare. Some state sites have also had technology issues.

Republican lawmakers, long opposed to Obamacare, have pounced on the rocky rollout to start multiple investigations into the administration's missteps and the role of contractors.

Some Democrats have also criticized the administration and called for extending the open-enrollment period beyond the existing March 31 deadline.

Sebelius on Friday dismissed the idea of extending the enrollment period.

Two committees in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will hold hearings next week, one with Sebelius and the other with Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

(Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by Will Dunham, Vicki Allen and Mohammad Zargham)

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