By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY The home-page message has been a constant since New York's website opened Tuesday: "The health exchange is currently having log in issues."
New York's Health Department was overwhelmed this week when its heavily advertised health-exchange website was swamped by 2 million visits in the first two hours after it launched.
The traffic swelled to more than 30 million by Wednesday evening, leaving customers unable to log on to sign up for health insurance.
Computer experts said New York was ill prepared for the onslaught, saying the heavy traffic was likely a function of people repeatedly struggling to register.
When a website can't keep up with visits, it leads to more traffic, said James Hendler, director of the Institute for Data Exploration and Applications at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute near Albany.
The more troubles, the more people who keep trying to log on. And that leads to more hits and more attention from search engines that monitor web traffic, Hendler said.
"You get this tidal-wave effect. People start coming; they start to overwhelm the system. That gets them frustrated," Hendler said. "Other systems start seeing something happening, and they start coming - which makes it harder for other people to get in."
The enormous amount of traffic on the website led to speculation that the site was being hacked. New York itself has 19.5 million people.
The state Health Department said Thursday evening it had no evidence of a security breach.
"There is no indication of any intentional efforts to overwhelm the site," said Donna Frescatore, executive director of NY State of Health, the exchange system.
New York hopes to sign up 1 million uninsured residents through the federally funded program. The state received about $370 million to set up the exchange.
The enrollment period runs through March 31. The program will start providing insurance on Jan. 1 through more than a dozen providers.
Frescatore said the state has added more servers to handle the web traffic, and the troubles are subsiding. She said Thursday that 44,000 people visited and actively shopped on the site, but the state has yet to say how many people signed up for insurance.
The state also has a phone hotline, which answered questions from nearly 10,500 New Yorkers through Thursday, she said.
"Technicians monitor visits to the site 24/7 for quality control purposes, to identify issues and to inform performance improvement measures," Frescatore said.
The state on Friday afternoon did not have an update on the web traffic.
States across the country reported trouble with the websites when they went live on Tuesday. But New York's appeared to be more pronounced.
President Obama and other supporters of the Affordable Care Act cited the traffic as a sign of the popularity of the program, despite pushback from critics and Republicans in Washington.
New York and other states may have been better served by having staggered a rollout over several days to limit the Internet overload, said Andy Meneely, an assistant professor of software engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
He said security of the website can be compromised when it can't keep up with the traffic.
"There's always this kind of classic tradeoff between performance and security," Meneely said. "And when you have a big launch like this, you are going to be suffering on both ends."
To visit the New York exchange website, visit: http://www.nystateofhealth.ny.gov
The phone number for the "NY State of Health" program is (855) 355-5777. The line is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.