The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Computer Glitches or Poor Program Management

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


According to a July 17, 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had obligated $303.4 million (77 percent of its total obligations for Obamacare) to establish the healthcare data hub, provide information technology support for federal employees working on the healthcare exchange, the Healthcare.gov website, and a healthcare call center.  The GAO highlighted that while HHS had met its project schedules and milestones for establishing agreements and developing a data hub, several critical tasks remained to be completed prior to the October 1, 2013 deadline for implementation, including the completion of external testing.

On October 1, 2013, the Healthcare.gov web portal for individuals seeking information and applying for the Obamacare Health Exchanges went live, and for most users’ fizzled.  Millions of Americans tried unsuccessfully to access healthcare insurance information and possibly apply for coverage.  The verdict is still out on the ultimate cause of the system shutdown, but several reports have come out providing some potential reasons:

  • On October 1, 2013, The Chicago Tribune reported that consumers were met with long delays, error messages and a largely non-working federal insurance exchange and call center on Tuesday morning.  Met with a message that the website had “a lot of visitors,” consumers were placed in a holding pattern until the system was available, or they decided to try back later.
  • On October 2, 2013, The New York Times reported that users were still encountering long waits, malfunctioning Web pages, and messages asking them to try back later.  According to the article, by Wednesday afternoon, the healthcare.gov portal had 6.1 million unique visitors.  Kevin Walsh, a senior executive with Xerox, which was awarded the $72 million contract to build Nevada’s state-run exchange was quoted as saying “It’s like building a bridge from two sides of the river; you just hope it comes out in the middle.”   Walsh added, “…usually you do a lot more testing than we’ve had time to do.”  An HHS official said that the government would be adding more computer services to help handle the heavy load.  In a separate Times article, security specialists indicated that the source of the problems was most likely from growing pains, as opposed to any system security issues.
  • On October 5, 2013, Reuters reported that IT experts were speculating that the software architecture of the website, which relies heavily on JavaScript, and downloads enormous amounts of files to an individual’s computer, was a leading cause of denial of service notices.
  • By October 6, 2013, reviews from the tech community were unimpressed with the architecture of the healthcare exchange website, and the lack of ease in use.  An article in The Wall Street Journal cited information technology experts calling the site “built on a sloppy software foundation,” filled with stray code that served no identifiable purposes, and indicated that basic web-efficiency techniques were lacking.
  • On October 8, 2013, The Atlantic Wire reported that the implications of these computer problems may not be limited to the initial application process, and that some insurers were receiving either incomplete applications from the website, or unable to access the information sent to them.

What the above illustrates is just how ill-prepared HHS was to implement provisions of Obamacare by the October 1 deadline for opening up the exchanges.  Ultimately it is the responsibility of HHS to make certain the software was adequately tested before it was deployed, designed to meet and exceed the demands that would be placed upon it, and that those who place applications in the system are able to have their applications processed prior to the December 15, 2013 deadline for coverage beginning January 1, 2014.  As a reminder, the administration has already extended the deadline for employers with over 50 employees to provide coverage for another year.  Given the critical issues in deploying the Healthcare.gov website, perhaps the administration should rethink whether to extend the individual mandate by at least a year as well.

 

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