October 16, 2013

Greg Kesich: Obamacare website disappointing – until you compare it with almost anything else

People who claim to be shocked by the delays are acting as if they’ve never had to adapt to a new system.

I went on the new Obamacare website to see if it’s as bad as they say.

It might be, but I can’t be sure because after 20 attempts to sign on, I gave up.

I came close one time. I just had to respond to a confirmation email to create my new account, but when I clicked the link I got bounced back to the site and a message that told me I had taken too long and had to start over.

I can’t say I was surprised, but a lot of commentators who never wanted to reform the health care system at all are claiming that they are shocked. If you listen to them this proves that the entire Affordable Care Act will collapse (“Obamacare is imploding,” Marc A. Thiessen on washingtonpost.com) or that its failure is intentional (“Obamacare’s website is crashing because it doesn’t want you to know how costly its plans are,” Avik Roy, Forbes magazine).

But since I live in America in the 21st century, I’m not disappointed when I hear that new software is not working as well as it was advertised, because that’s what I’ve learned to expect. Face it, when was the last time you heard anybody say: “We just got a new software system at work and it’s fantastic!”?

And since we are talking about a customer service interface for the U.S. government – the people who brought you the tax code and wetland regulations – how could anyone be shocked.

This is not an anti-government rant. Nothing ever works right at first, even in the do-no-wrong private sector.

Where I work, we are in the middle of the second implementation of a new software system, and it is as easy to manage as that little girl in “The Exorcist.” The first implementation ended in a catastrophic failure that sent us all scurrying back to the old system that we used to complain about but now love.

Somehow, the new technology makes everything harder. What used to be accomplished with one stroke on the keyboard is now (and I am not exaggerating) a 12-step process. Miss one step, and your day’s work could disappear into “The Cloud.” You think the health care website is disappointing? When it’s not losing stories, the computer may decide to multiply them, layering three, four or five copies of everything, one on top the other, on a page layout. It even resurrected an old masthead that included the name of a long-gone former executive.

So, when I hear that 8 million people are finding it hard to sign on to the same website at the same time on its first day of operation, excuse me for not being shocked. And if you think it’s just a case of a dead-tree newspaperman who can’t transition into the digital age, it’s not just me.

The New York Times reports that the Common Application, a nonprofit company that has found a way to squeeze millions out of the college selection process, is having major problems with its new software.

The Common App makes it easy for students and high schools to apply for college by assembling one application package and sending it to multiple institutions electronically with a click of a mouse.

But according to the Times, this year’s new software for the Common App has serious problems only a few weeks from early application deadlines. The Times quoted Lily Geiger of Manhattan, who uploaded her all-important admission essay only to discover that the computer had ideas of its own about where the punctuation and spaces should go.

“I was totally freaked out,” she said.

She’s not the only one. In May, Maine Medical Center officials told employees that a botched roll-out of a new software system made it impossible for them to bill properly and was partly responsible for a $13.4 million loss for the hospital in the first half of its fiscal year.

So, a slow sign up for Obamacare doesn’t sound that bad. It’s not as if people are being denied care. Oct. 1 marked the start of open enrollment to sign up for insurance policies that don’t go into effect until Jan. 1. If it’s still not working around Christmas, we can talk about a serious problem.

And somehow, I don’t think we’ll get to that. A government that can blow up a yurt in North Waziristan with a drone piloted from Utah should be able to get control over something only a little more complicated than one of those websites that sell concert tickets.

I could be wrong. These computers have disappointed me before. 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:gkesich@pressherald.com

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