October 10, 2013

Obamacare glitches to be expected, analysts say

Could the culprit be clunky technology?

By Craig Timberg
The Washington Post

And Lena H. Sun

Problems with the federal government’s new health-care website have attracted legions of armchair analysts who speak of its problems with “virtualization” and “load testing.” Yet increasingly, they are saying the root cause is not simply a matter of flawed computer code but rather the government’s habit of buying outdated, costly and buggy technology.

click image to enlarge

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act signup page on the www.healthcare.gov website in this photo illustration. The federal government’s portal logged over 2.8 million visitors by the afternoon of Oct. 2, a day after Obamacare was launched.

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DEADLINE TIGHTENS TO AVOID PENALTIES FOR BEING UNINSURED

You’ll have to get coverage by Valentine’s Day or thereabouts to avoid penalties for being uninsured, the Obama administration confirmed Wednesday.

That’s about six weeks earlier than a March 31 deadline often cited previously.

The explanation: Health insurance coverage typically starts on the first day of a given month, and it takes up to 15 days to process applications.

You still have to be covered by March 31 to avoid the new penalties for remaining uninsured. But to successfully accomplish that you have to send in your application by the middle of February. Coverage would then start on Mar. 1.

The Jackson Hewitt tax preparation company first pointed out the wrinkle with the health care law’s least popular requirement.

An administration official confirmed it. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and insisted on anonymity.

It’s the latest bit of confusion involving complex requirements of President Obama’s health care law, known as the Affordable Care Act.

Adjustments to the law have ranged from the momentous to the mundane. The biggest one was a one-year delay of a requirement that larger employers offer coverage, announced this summer. More recently, the administration has postponed some Spanish-language capabilities of its enrollment website, as well as full functionality on the site small businesses use to sign up.

Starting next year, the law requires virtually all Americans to have insurance or face a tax penalty.

– The Associated Press

The U.S. government spends more than $80 billion a year for information-technology services, yet the resulting systems typically take years to build and often are cumbersome when they launch. While the error messages, long waits and other problems with www.healthcare.gov have been spotlighted by the high-profile nature of its launch and unexpectedly heavy demands on the system, such glitches are common, say those who argue for a nimbler procurement system.

They say most government agencies have a shortage of technical staff and long have outsourced most jobs to big contractors that, while skilled in navigating a byzantine procurement system, are not on the cutting edge of developing user-friendly websites.

TOO MANY COOKS

These companies also sometimes fail to communicate effectively with each other as a major project moves ahead. Dozens of private firms had a role in developing the online insurance exchanges at the core of the health-care program and its website, working on contracts that collectively were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a Government Accountability Office report in June.

The result has been particularly stark when compared with the slick, powerful computer systems built for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, which in 2008 harnessed the emerging power of social networking and in 2012 relied on aggressive data-mining efforts to identify and turn out voters. For those, the campaign recruited motivated young programmers, often from tech start-ups.

“The wizards from the campaign have no desire to contract with the federal government because it’s a pain in the butt,” said Clay Johnson, a veteran technologist for Democratic campaigns who pushes for procurement reform through his whimsically named start-up, the Department of Better Technology. “Is it possible to be good? Is it possible to do right by the taxpayer in this space? I’m not sure that it is.”

He is one of many Obama supporters hoping to help fix the website by drawing on the collective wisdom of software developers, a mostly left-leaning group that have been analyzing healthcare.gov and sharing their thoughts in emails, blog posts and exchanges on Reddit.

Among their conclusions: Requiring all users to sign in before surfing choked the system, as did insufficient server capacity. They also noted that the website stalls if a single step in the process – such as verifying a user’s identity – is not quickly completed.

Industry officials note that new software often is buggy, even when it is produced by respected tech firms such as Apple and Google. It’s one reason that private companies prefer gradual launches and long periods of testing before starting major marketing pushes. Although it is possible to conduct “load testing” on a site in hopes of determining how it will respond to heavy demand, there is no substitute for the crush of traffic experienced by a popular system on its official launch date.

Despite warnings of looming problems from the GAO and others, federal officials expressed surprise when the website failed almost at once, with millions of people receiving puzzling, frustrating error messages.

Federal officials have blamed the problems mainly on site usage far beyond what was anticipated, with more than 8 million people trying to use healthcare.gov in the first three days after the site was fully activated on Oct. 1.

A huge effort to remedy problems, including round-the-clock work from the contractors who built it, have eased problems. But by Wednesday – nine days after the launch – significant flaws and slow performance continued.

(Continued on page 2)

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