Here is some good news on Healthcare.gov: 38 days before open enrollment starts, federal officials were able to show off a live demonstration of how the website's application process will work.
That wasn't true last year, during the weeks leading up to the botched launch. Back then, the officials didn't show the actual site in action. Instead, they would typically just show off a static set of PowerPoint slides. The federal government, as we later learned, just was not prepared for Healthcare.gov to go live.
So it's a decent sign that, this time around, the Obama administration can show off a real-live, functional application.
The site itself is a bit different, too. Some of the fonts are prettier. The woman from the front page is no longer with us. But the biggest change is the length and simplicity of the application. The form that, last year, took applicants through 76 different screens of questions and answer boxes has been pared back to 16 pages.
"In the old application, someone would submit an answer, it would get sent to the data services hub and then it might hourglass or [users would] have to wait between questions," says Andy Slavitt, principal deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Now, the questions are submitted on a few forms — and sent to the data hub in one big batch. That is, as Slavitt put it, "how a modern website should work."
The White House began testing the new Healthcare.gov in July
While open enrollment ended last March, Healthcare.gov has still been open for business to those who have a special enrollment situation — people who move states, for example, or lose their jobs.
Those enrollees have, since July, been guinea pigs for the new site. In July, the Obama administration started directing 1 percent of these people to the new healthcare.gov. And over the past few months they have scaled up to all people signing up; an estimated 20,000 applications have moved through the new process.
Not everyone will be able to use the most simple, 16-screen application. Federal officials estimate that about 30 percent of shoppers will have more complex situations that require more detailed questions. But the hope is that, when open enrollment starts in just about five weeks, the majority of shoppers will use the simpler 16-screen application.
The application is only part of the battle
An easier to use application certainly doesn't hurt. Anything that makes enrollment simple will be an improvement over last year's very cumbersome and complex process.
But the application is also just one step in the enrollment process — and the other steps are arguably some of the more challenging pieces to get right.
Many shoppers, for example, got stuck last year in the identity verification process (the part when the website tries to use federal data to confirm you are the person you say you are). This happens prior to the application process and, while officials did not demonstrate this part of the website (as they did with the application, showing reporters a walk-through of the live site), they say they are confident it can perform better than last year.
This year there will be millions of people who are trying to renew their policies or switch to a new plan. When Obamacare was in its first year, in 2014, those people didn't exist. So Health and Human Services is also working on an infrastructure to accommodate renewers — and also encourage people to shop around, a second time, to see if they can get a better deal than the plan they picked in year one.
"We want to leverage the fact we've got new competitors," says Healthcare.gov chief executive Kevin Counihan. "We believe there's a lot to be gained by leveraging competition and choice to get people a better deal."
Officials did not demonstrate the renewal process either but, again, stated their confidence that consumers would be able to easily renew their plans. Healthcare.gov just began end-to-end testing on Monday and, over the next five weeks, officials will continue to evaluate how the site works.
Once again, this sets open enrollment apart from the 2014 experience: last year, there were only 10 days of end-to-end testing.