Ihab Issa lost track of how often he has tried to buy insurance through HealthCare.gov, although he knows it is probably more than 100 times.
Issa, 48, who works in a psychotherapy office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., started logging into the website when it launched Oct. 1. Since then, he has visited the site once or twice a day, only to encounter a different obstacle.
But on Sunday — after 61 days of trying — the system worked.
“I was thrilled,” Issa said. “I had to be at work, but I just wanted to sit there and look at all the different options.”
The White House announced early Sunday that, given the recent improvements in the site, most HealthCare.gov shoppers should be able to have an experience like Issa's. By 10 a.m., however, the website seemed to be struggling with high traffic.
Federal health officials said they saw an increase in error rates and a slowdown in response times and decided to deploy “queueing” software designed to limit the number of users permitted on the site at one time.
The number of users at that point had reached the “mid-30,000”³ range, said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency overseeing HealthCare.gov.
That figure is substantially below the 50,000 simultaneous users that officials said the site would be able to handle as of Sunday.
Asked whether Monday's traffic indicated that the site's true capacity was below 50,000, Bataille did not answer directly. She referred instead to a separate metric the administration has used to measure success — that 800,000 people would be able to use the website in the course of a single day.
From midnight to noon Monday, HealthCare.gov had 375,000 visitors, and Bataille said the site was on pace to exceed the 800,000 figure by the end of the day. At 5:30 p.m., the website reported 750,000 visitors; shoppers no longer had to wait in line and error rates were low, according to a HealthCare.gov tweet.
With twice as much traffic as the site sees on a typical Monday, error rates and page wait times were higher than normal, Bataille said. The average page took two seconds to load, four times the administration's target of half a second or less. Web pages had an error rate of 0.9 percent; the target error rate is 1 percent or lower.
Those who had to wait earlier in the day received a message saying the wait was necessary “so we can make sure there's room for you to have a good experience on our site.” Shoppers had the option to leave their email addresses and be notified when the site was available. When they returned, they were supposed to be moved to the front of the queue.
Kathy Coombs, 61, of Alexandria, Va., was able to log on to the site Oct. 1. She created an account and received an email saying her results had been processed.
“I was so excited about it,” said Coombs, who is likely to receive a government subsidy to help her pay for her insurance. “I'm a huge liberal and big proponent of all this, and as a recent widow I could really benefit.”
But since then, she has been unable to see her choices of health plans. At 1:30 p.m. Monday, she tried again, but she ran into heavy traffic and was unable to proceed. “I still hit a dead end,” she said.
Others had more success shopping for insurance over the weekend, when traffic was lighter.
Tom Marchetti, a 41-year-old pizzeria owner from Freeland, Pa., enrolled in coverage Sunday after months of failed attempts.
When he logged on Sunday, he noticed a new button that allowed him to delete his pending application. He breezed through a new application in less than an hour, purchasing a policy that he said is comparable in price and coverage to the plan he has in the individual market.
Still, Marchetti is not totally sure he is in the clear. While the website listed his maximum out-of-pocket costs as $175, the insurance company says that the number is $3,500. It is possible that Marchetti may qualify for subsidy to reduce those costs, but he needs to reach his new insurance provider to figure out the discrepancy.
Others, though, were just as stuck Monday as they were in the past. One persistent issue appears to involve identity verification, in which HealthCare.gov tries to make sure people are who they say they are.
Kelly Weaver, a substitute teacher in Michigan, said her application has been stuck in the identity verification process since mid-October.
“I don't know what they're fixing,” Weaver said Monday. She said she considers herself a health-law supporter. She tried logging in on Sunday, but her identity had not been verified.
Weaver has submitted identity verification information online and over the phone. She has uploaded copies of her driver's license to the website. When she has called the customer service center, she has twice been told that she would receive a call back in two to five business days. She never got a return phone call.
“When I talk to them on the phone, they say, 'We'll have to get back to you,' ” Weaver said. “But it's really, 'We're getting you off the phone because other people are waiting in the queue.' ”
One person who is likely to zoom through enrollment: President Obama.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday that Obama planned to buy coverage through the exchange, even though he was not required to by law. Carney did not say when the registration will happen.
The president has the option of choosing to enroll through the District of Columbia's exchange or the federal HealthCare.gov marketplace, which is handling sign-ups for his home state of Illinois.