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U.S. healthcare website down overnight for extended upgrade

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October
A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October

By Roberta Rampton and Sharon Begley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government said it would take down the website at the center of President Barack Obama's healthcare reforms for an extended 11-hour period overnight on Friday as technology experts push to complete upgrades by a November 30 deadline.

The website, HealthCare.gov, was supposed to make it easy to shop for health insurance required by the Obamacare law when it launched on October 1, but quickly turned into a political disaster after errors and timelags prevented most people who visited the site from signing up.

Obama officials tasked with rescuing his signature initiative pledged that they would have it working well for most people by November 30.

They had worked on software and hardware upgrades through the U.S. Thanksgiving week to double its capacity so as many as 50,000 people could shop at the same time on the site.

Just ahead of that self-imposed Saturday deadline, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said the website would be down for an unusually long period, from 9 p.m. EST on Friday until 8 a.m. EST on Saturday.

"We will be making upgrades to the system and will require more than our usual four hours to complete," said a Health and Human Services official.

The agency, which is in charge of the website, has been taking the site down regularly overnight to make fixes, and will do so again early on Sunday morning from 1 a.m. EST until 5 a.m. EST.

HARD TO ASSESS THE FIX

The flopped launch has hurt early enrollment numbers - and Obama's polling numbers, which have sunk to the lowest level of his presidency.

"But the good thing about when you're down is that usually you got nowhere to go but up," Obama said in an interview set to air late on Friday on ABC Television.

Republicans have said the early failures justify their opposition to the program. Democrats have put pressure on Obama to extend deadlines for signing up.

Americans wanting insurance by January 1 have until December 23 to enroll, and other uninsured Americans have to sign up by March 31, or face penalties.

Several experts told Reuters it will be hard to independently assess on Saturday whether the site has met the administration's goals of functioning for most users most of the time, including handling 50,000 concurrent users.

"There won't be anything you can tell from the outside," said Jonathan Wu, an IT expert and co-founder of the consumer financial website ValuePenguin.

When the site opened for enrollment on October 1, the widespread failures started with the simple act of trying to create an account. But now, any remaining problems lie much deeper within the site, he said.

"We really have no idea what down-the-line-problems still may exist," including the system for paying insurers when a consumer enrolls in one of their plans, he said in an interview.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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