IT Experts Weigh In on Obamacare System
Reuters asked 5 IT experts to look at the Healthcare.gov website and give their analysis of the system.
What they found will not restore anyone's faith in government:
Government officials blame the persistent glitches on an overwhelming crush of users - 8.6 million unique visitors by Friday - trying to visit the HealthCare.gov website this week.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversaw development of the site, declined to make any of its IT experts available for interviews. CGI Group Inc, the Canadian contractor that built HealthCare.gov, is "declining to comment at this time," said spokeswoman Linda Odorisio.
Five outside technology experts interviewed by Reuters, however, say they believe flaws in system architecture, not traffic alone, contributed to the problems.
For instance, when a user tries to create an account on HealthCare.gov, which serves insurance exchanges in 36 states, it prompts the computer to load an unusually large amount of files and software, overwhelming the browser, experts said.
If they are right, then just bringing more servers online, as officials say they are doing, will not fix the site.
"Adding capacity sounds great until you realize that if you didn't design it right that won't help," said Bill Curtis, chief scientist at CAST, a software quality analysis firm, and director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality. "The architecture of the software may limit how much you can add on to it. I suspect they'll have to reconfigure a lot of it."
"Reconfigure" may be an understatement:
One possible cause of the problems is that hitting "apply" on HealthCare.gov causes 92 separate files, plug-ins and other mammoth swarms of data to stream between the user's computer and the servers powering the government website, said Matthew Hancock, an independent expert in website design. He was able to track the files being requested through a feature in the Firefox browser.
It is not clear why the upload function was included.
"They set up the website in such a way that too many requests to the server arrived at the same time," Hancock said.
He said because so much traffic was going back and forth between the users' computers and the server hosting the government website, it was as if the system was attacking itself.
Heh. The attack of the killer Obamacare computer. It sounds like a great sci-fi movie theme. But as a system that must be user friendly, not so good.
And from the way the IT experts are talking, it doesn't sound like the glitches are going to be fixed anytime soon. It is apparent that there are fundamental flaws built into the software that may require substantial redesign in order to make it work. That's not going to happen over the weekend during this blackout period.
People who have tried to access the site have not only been frustrated in being able to sign up. There also appears to be a possibility that at least some of the information being given out is incorrect.
On Thursday, the government's official Obamacare Facebook page was riddled with people expressing sticker shock over the government's high cost premiums after struggling for hours to wade through the technical failures vexing Obamacare exchanges all across the country.
"I am so disappointed," wrote one woman. "These prices are outrageous and there are huge deductibles. No one can afford this!" The comment received 169 "likes."
"There is NO WAY I can afford it," said one commenter after using the Kaiser Subsidy Calculator. "Heck right now I couldn't afford an extra 10$ [sic] a month...and oh apparently I make to [sic] much at 8.55/hour to get subsidies."
Another person shared a link found on the federal government's main Obamacare page listing premium estimates for small business employers:
The information is not very complete as I don't see anything about deductible or other detailed info, but it does given an actual price as to the "Premium." It is VERY SCARY!! For example, my insurance plan right now for my spouse and I costs $545 a month with 100% coverage after my $2500 deductible. We are both 32 years old. When I looked at this site for 80% coverage it says it will be $954.78 a month!!!! So compare my old Plan: 100% coverage for $545 a month To New Plan: 80% Coverage for $945 a month. This is only only an estimate but it is VERY Scary for me to see this kind of increase in rates and reduction in benefits!
A single mother of two said she is in school and working full-time while living "75% below the poverty level." She said she was shocked to learn she did not qualify for a healthcare subsidy. "Are you F'ing kidding me????" she wrote on the government's Obamacare Facebook page. "Where the HELL am I supposed to get $3,000 more a year to pay for this 'bronze' health insurance plan!?!??? And I DO NOT EVEN WANT INSURANCE to begin with!! This is frightening," she wrote.
Since Americans are eligible for subsidies if they are making less than 144% of the poverty level, someone who makes $8.55 an hour is clearly eligible. Is the system telling the customer that he isn't? Perhaps the customer is eligible for Medicaid in his state. Does the system inform the customer of that option?
The bottom line: If people can't use the exchanges to sign up, they don't get subsidies. And if enough healthy people don't sign up, the whole rotten edifice comes crashing down, doomed by its own incompetently designed infrastructure.
One last point: The feds had three years to design this system. Why is no one asking what they were doing all that time? The truth is, before they could design a system, they had to know what was going into it. And that problem can be traced directly to the political motivation to delay much of the implementation of Obamacare until after the election. Once insurance companies were able to figure out what they had to include in coverages, they could estimate premium prices. Recall the sticker shock when those figures came out earlier this year. Now imagine them coming out last summer before the election. Obamacare would have become an issue as it was in 2010 -- something the Obama campaign was desperate to avoid.
We will have to go through these technical problems again next year when the employer mandate is added and all of that data pours into the system. And don't forget that the small business exchanges aren't even completed yet.
Tell me this isn't a government operation.