A data centre critical for allowing uninsured Americans to buy health coverage under President Barack Obama's healthcare law went down yesterday, halting online enrollment for all 50 states.
The data centre, operated by Verizon's Terremark, experienced a connectivity issue that caused it to shut down, affecting the federal government's already problem-plagued online marketplace Healthcare.gov and similar sites operated by 14 states and the District of Columbia, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Obama administration and company officials could not say how long it would take to fix the connectivity problem.
Separate technical problems that have stalled enrollment on Healthcare.gov since its launch on October 1 are at the heart of a new Republican effort to discredit the healthcare law, also known as Obamacare, largely through congressional investigations to determine what went wrong in building the costly and complicated implementation system.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is due to testify later this week before a House of Representatives committee, while government contractors work around the clock to improve the Healthcare.gov website.
The outage caused the data centre to lose network connectivity with the federal government's data services hub, an electronic traffic roundabout that links the online health insurance marketplaces with numerous federal agencies and can verify people's identity, citizenship, and other facts.
Without the hub, consumers are unable to apply online for coverage or determine their eligibility for federal subsidies to help pay for insurance premiums. Last week Sebelius praised the hub's ability to perform complex calculations in quick time as an example of a successful segment of the system.
HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said Sebelius spoke with Verizon's chief executive officer to discuss the situation: "They committed to fixing the problem as soon as possible."
The outage affected enrollment in all 50 states, as well as Terremark customers not connected with the marketplaces, according to the HHS spokeswoman. She said the data centre's network connectivity went down during planned maintenance to replace a failed networking component.
A spokesman for Verizon said the problem would be fixed "as soon as possible."
"Our engineers have been working with HHS and other technology companies to identify and address the root cause of the issue," Verizon spokesman Jeff Nelson said.
The administration has expressed confidence it can fix underlying problems with Healthcare.gov by early December, in time for people to meet a December 15 deadline to enroll in new health plans to receive benefits on January 1. Further delays would jeopardise its ability to enroll as many as seven million Americans for coverage during Obamacare's first year.
Contractors have already blamed the administration for not conducting enough vital system-wide testing and for a last-minute design change requiring online visitors to set up accounts before window-shopping for insurance. The change is widely blamed for creating early bottlenecks as millions of people flooded the website.