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Belmont Club

The Curse of Complexity

January 10th, 2014 - 3:44 pm

The administration delivered a resounding judgment on its claim that Obamacare’s website problems were over by firing the prime contractor, CGI Federal. The Washington Post, reporting the contract cancellation, explains that  ”as federal officials and contractors have been trying to fix various aspects of the Web site in the past few months, about half of the new software code the company has written has failed on the first try, according to internal federal information.”

They might have guessed the failure rate from the start. In an earlier article, the Washington Post noted that CGI Federal was “filled with executives from a company that mishandled at least 20 other government IT projects, including a flawed effort to automate retirement benefits for millions of federal workers, documents and interviews show.”

Now make that 21.

Yet the malfunctions of the website mattered less than one would think. Even if it worked perfectly its intended audience is as perplexed by it as travelers from England at the sight of hieroglyphics. A survey by Enroll America showed that 68% of the uninsured never even logged on to the website. Terms like subsidies, deductibles, plan this or plan that were too much for some, a fact that was anticipated by the creation of a class of Navigators created and funded by Obamacare itself.

They knew that the target audience would be baffled. The Navigators were created in the knowledge that insurance would have to be provided where basic literacy was no longer to be taken for granted. Recently a bank robber made the news when he handed a holdup note to a teller, only to have the teller unable to read it. In a recent, high profile murder trial the star witness proved unable to read her own declaration when questioned on the stand.

At least some of the uninsured will be in similar case. The Navigators have to fix this problem. Their job, not to put too fine a point on it, is to fill out the form for those who can’t fill it out themselves, nor in fact be able to understand the form in the first place. Time Magazine’s Detroit Blog described the effects of the best union provided public education that malfeasance can buy. Those fine institutions of learning posted the worst math scores in the 40-year history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

“These numbers are only slightly better than what one would expect by chance as if the kids had never gone to school and simply guessed at the answers,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts. “These numbers … are shocking and appalling and should not be allowed to stand.”

Shocking, but not surprising. The Navigators are a testament to that. At least no more surprising than the performance of CGI Federal.

This can create security problems and not a few misunderstandings, such as people thinking they are covered when in fact they are not.  How could they tell if they don’t know what the terms they are agreeing to means? The sad sight of people being turned away from hospitals they had entered believing they were entitled to  healthcare is a symptom of this. It is little wonder that “dozens of House Democrats broke ranks with President Obama on Friday to support legislation that would require people to be notified of security breaches under ObamaCare.”

Security breaches are going to happen and they want to distance themselves from it.  Readers will recall the president himself symbolically enrolled in a Bronze plan in Hawaii by instructing aides in Washington to fill out the forms in person.

This does not sound like a vote of confidence. Indeed much of the Federal Government has exempted itself from Obamacare. Combine a website half of whose code is dead on arrival and a cadre of Navigators who are resisting state rules requiring them to submit to criminal background checks and what do you get? You get what you’ve got.

The administration is trying to fix the original complexity of Obamacare by transforming the the intially screwy design into other systems with the same level of unsolvability. Take a set of rules many times longer than the Bible and turn it into millions of lines of defective code? Not working? Now take an army of Obamacare Navigators and get them to fill in the forms for those who can’t make it out.

That will fix things, won’t it?  It will not. As I have written before, the problem is in the complexity of  the business rules;  in the actuarial characteristics of the system;  in the lack of money to fund a system that is more expensive than the one it replaces. But the idea is that if we transform a complex problem into other complex problems of the same degree then we have simplified things. Good luck on that.


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