HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would have been fired by now if she worked for any non-government online start-up. Her Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for building Obamacare’s web portal, Healthcare.gov. While she can editorialize all she wants about how great that site is, the reality is that its first week has been marked by an embarrassing hash of mistakes according to USA Today.
President Obama’s chief technology adviser, Todd Park, blames the unexpectedly large numbers of people who flocked to Healthcare.gov and state websites. “Take away the volume and it works,” he told USA TODAY’s Tim Mullaney.
That’s like saying that except for the torrential rain, it’s a really nice day. Was Park not listening to the administration’s daily weather report predicting Obamacare’s popularity?
Park said the administration expected 50,000 to 60,000 simultaneous users. It got 250,000. Compare that with the similarly rocky debut seven years ago of exchanges to obtain Medicare drug coverage. The Bush administration projected 20,000 simultaneous users and built capacity for 150,000.
That’s the difference between competence and incompetence.
The too-much-demand excuse also is less than the full story. In addition to grossly underestimating demand, the administration and its contractors seem to have made mistakes in building the websites. The system for verifying consumer identity has had persistent problems, as have pull-down menus.
Nor were problems confined to the 36 state health exchanges run by the federal government. Sites run by 14 states and Washington, D.C., bogged down because they have to refer to federal databases to verify consumers’ identity.
The non-federal exchanges appear to vary widely in performance. Maryland’s highly touted site continued to generate a bewildering array of error messages on Monday, while a successful visit to the D.C. marketplace showed a profusion of plans at a wide range of prices — exactly what consumers have been led to expect.
Considering that officials had more than three years to prepare, it’s hard even to imagine a credible excuse. And if the Medicare Part D experience is any guide, new layers of problems await as people finally get through and engage the complexities of buying insurance.
How could this be? How could the Obama administration fail so badly to anticipate demand for the site? Why does Sebelius still have a job after this embarrassing roll-out?
One cannot make the argument that Obama doesn’t surround himself with people who get the Internet.
Obama’s administration is the same group of people who built the “Cave” to defeat Mitt Romney. The Cave took presidential campaigning out of its traditional realm:
It hired analysts from Silicon Valley rather than the Beltway, one of whom is a particle physicist. Their agile, outside-politics thinking helped build an efficient, ruthlessly data-driven machine that was able to correctly predict the behavior of millions of Americans and make real-time adjustments that produced votes. Or at least, that’s the story that the folks who built it are saying in the report. Victors always crow when they get to write their own history, but setting that aside, they did win a race that the issues, history and the chasm in experience and abilities between the two candidates suggested that they should have lost.
The Cave could and did predict human behavior down to an unprecedented granular level, and turned out the votes that Barack Obama needed to win a second term. Team Obama built that massively sophisticated team and system to win an election in just 18 months. But when it had three years to get the Obamacare portals built correctly, it flopped. Terribly.
It’s tempting to leap to the conclusion that as a leader, Barack Obama cares more about and is far more skilled at campaigning than at actually doing the job for which he campaigned. He’s the proverbial dog who actually catches the car — what does he do now?
Myra Adams wrote yesterday about Obama’s ambitions, and included this quote from the Lightworker himself.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Mr. Obama told the crowd assembled in March 2006. “Keynote speaker at the Democratic convention. The cover of Newsweek. My book made the best-seller list. I just won a Grammy for reading it on tape.
“Really, what else is there to do?” he said, his smile now broad. “Well, I guess I could pass a law or something.”
Well, he passed a law or something. Then across three years, he assembled a team that built a ramshackle web site that seems like a relic from the Internet’s earliest days — slow access, glitchfest, probable data robbery, the works. All that’s missing is one of those annoying animated “Under Construction” gifs that early web developers used to post.
It’s baffling, purely from a technological perspective. Overstock.com can anticipate traffic and tweak its sales and server capacity at its needs demand. Amazon.com and Cafepress.com can spit out sales figures any time a seller wants them. Amazon supports online streaming video and even thousands of other web sites on its servers. Ebay.com can manage zillions of auctions on everything from homes and cars to video games and jewelry without any hiccups. It can also provide sales information in real time. Drudgereport.com can handle and sling massive traffic every day. Facebook claims it has 900 million users worldwide. It shocks Internet users when any of these sites goes down, and the reality is, they almost never do. Their managers know that downtime equals lost revenue and lost trust.
The Internet is not new anymore. It’s not some mysterious black box. Obama’s campaign hired some of the best and brightest to turn the Internet into a campaign weapon. How, then, can Healthcare.gov, which was built to support the law for which Barack Obama will be most remembered, be such a hot, steaming mess?