New Contender for Biggest Technology "Foul" Up

Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last few years, you’re aware of two things. How and what news is presented varies dramatically by the source of the news, and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is having extreme technology problems. Therefore, to remain apolitical and yet get the point across, here are some recent headlines from new sources across the political spectrum:

Headline: $93M ObamaCare website may face months of glitches, experts warn. Source: Fox News
Headline: Slow-bamacare: Tech fixes planned for health exchange. Source: CNBC
Headline: Wonkbook: Obamacare’s Web site is really bad. Source: Washington Post
Headline: Obamacare Enrollment Slowly Begins As Insurance Exchanges Still Face Technical Problems. Source: Huffington Post

A while back I wrote an article titled “Smart Technology, Dumb Mistakes”, dealing with Knight Capital’s record setting pace for losing $440MM (about 1.5 hours), and the BATS Exchange ruining its own IPO. Now it appears we’ve got a new contestant for “biggest technology screw up of all time”. It hasn’t won yet, but it’s definitely making a run at it. We’ll see if it continues to stumble, or picks itself up, brushes itself off, and walks confidently to the finish line. The website is healthcare.gov.

Per the above headlines, regardless of your political affiliations, this has to be seen as a big mess, and a lot will depend upon how fast it’s all fixed. However, the early indications don’t look good. In publishing, many companies are having issues jumping into the digital world, and I’ve seen, happily from a safe vantage point, two crash and burn software launches that had remarkably similar symptoms. In both cases, the product wasn’t thoroughly tested, and a multitude of issues showed up when the project went live, which (of course) is always when volume starts to increase. In both cases, the initial diagnosis was that the problems were ‘volume related’, which in both cases turned out to be completely incorrect. Volume often serves to simply highlight issues. Sadly, in both cases the products had to be completely discarded and redesigned and re-coded, a process that can take a year or so.

If these healthcare exchange websites have deep-seated problems (deep-seeded is grammatically incorrect unless you are talking about a basketball tournament or planting crops), then this is going to be a slow motion train crash, because you can’t throw hardware or even 'too many' programming resources at the problem. In fact, it appears that part of the issue is that there were too many outside resources thrown at getting these sites done on time, and just maybe the efforts weren’t coordinated well enough. It looks like a case of “too many cooks”……Maybe the White House should get the TV show “Chopped” to take a look at what each extremely expensive outsourced consulting firm did, and start chopping the bad ones.

One thing I find hard to understand—I live in Massachusetts, which has “Romneycare”, on which the ACA was modeled and Romney’s presidential campaign floundered. We have a website called the Health Connector, and it works superbly. You can shop for insurance there, see your benefits, see your doctors, and sign up; all right away. No problems at all. If you veer off into getting subsidized insurance it takes longer as you need to fill out some forms, but regardless, the site itself works great and it serves the entire 6.5MM residents here quickly and efficiently. Why didn’t they just copy this and modify it?

The other point is slightly political, but merely an observation: The government shutdown, the reason for which escapes me at the moment, is completely distracting attention from these technical issues. In other words, although this technology problem may become the “Big Dig” of Government technology projects, not too many people are noticing because the headlines are all about the shutdown. Republicans in the House are not really holding up Obamacare so much as they are keeping people from seeing the issues with it, which I don’t think was their goal.

Of course some people are certainly noticing the technical issues—mainly it's people with pre-existing severe health issues, who are desperately trying to sign up for insurance but cannot, due to these technical issues. 

Update: Insurance companies are now reporting issues with the validity of data received from these insurance exchange websites, which also does not bode well. Apparently the data is mixed up between accounts and within accounts. The last time I saw this happen, it was with one of the aforementioned attempts by a publisher to leap into the digital era—the product was delivered, and worked only well enough to make it worse. This was an online system to learn vocabulary words, and not only did it have a lot of bugs, it also mixed up the students between classes and worse, schools; but even more irritating, it allowed students to take an entire test, yet when they clicked ‘finish’ it erased all the data or scored it improperly, pretty much at random. Like I said earlier, this problem was initially blamed on volume, but turned out to be just exceptionally poorly written code, and the company had to throw out the investment and start over. The problems at healthcare.gov are eerily and dishearteningly similar.

A new problem has been now noted--no one in the government purchased similar sounding domains to healthcare.gov. However, scammers and other types certainly did. For instance, healthcare.com looks and seems like the real site, except of course that you can actually log on.This site appears to be the official site, but it isn't--there is even a picture of the White House on the home page. Crazy stuff. People are going to be keying private information into wrong sites.

Further reading (very recent articles as of 10/19/13):