No Hope Left for Obamacare’s Website, Techies Say

The Fiscal Times

Nearly a month and a half into the dismal Obamacare rollout, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services communications director Julie Bataille told reporters on Tuesday that CMS has begun emailing at least 275,000 people who had gotten “stuck” attempting to create accounts on the glitch-ridden HealthCare.gov, asking them to come back to the site and “try again.” 

Bataille refused to say whether all 275,000 people would be able to use the exchange at the same time without crashing the system. Instead, she dodged specifics about the progress programmers have been making on the website’s repair efforts and how CMS would be able to meet its Nov. 30 deadline — the day the Obama administration has promised to have the site up and running “smoothly for the vast majority of users.” 

“The system is getting better each week,” Bataille said. She didn’t specify whether the website would be completely fixed and glitch-free, though. Instead, she pointed to other ways consumers could sign up for insurance through the exchanges “whether that is via direct enrollment with insurance companies to meet the pent up consumer demand or … calling the call centers or enrolling in person.” 

The Obama administration’s repeated refusal to provide specifics on when the site would actually be functioning after the end-of-November deadline is not surprising given the wide-ranging technological and operational problems with the site.

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It’s even more discouraging since less than 50,000 people have signed up for health insurance through the federal exchange, according to unofficial estimates reported by the Wall Street Journal

And it doesn’t appear to be getting better. 

According to tech experts, the sorry state of the current website does little to inspire confidence that it can be fixed and functional in less than three weeks. 

“When I visited HealthCare.gov on October 1, that was the worst piece of software I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Luke Chung, founder and CEO of the software company FMS. “It had nothing to do with too many users. It couldn’t serve one user.” 

According to Sumit Nijhawan, CEO of Infogix, a data security firm working with private insurers, even if the White House can fix the problems associated with the site, they're going to find new ones immediately. Nijhawan also warned that the systems that allow CMS and health insurance companies to exchange information are nowhere close to being ready, meaning tech problems could last years. 

Related: Tech Expert —Scrap the Obamacare Site and Start Over 

"What we’ve seen so far is the first set of problems that come up," he said. "Then you have the next set of problems. It’s one set of issues leading into another." 

Nijhawan, whose firm is working to verify information submitted by users, said that they’re receiving volumes of bad information, to which he attributed one of three factors: 

  • Human error, meaning the user entered incorrect information or made a mistake using the web interface. However, Nijhawan didn’t blame the user for these mistakes. “It’s not that someone mistakenly puts in wrong information. These guys haven’t bought insurance before and they don’t understand what the terminology is,” he said. “It’s quite possible they enter wrong info because they don’t understand.” 
  • Data access errors related to the federal hub. In these cases, the hub provides incorrect information from one of the host of federal agencies it’s pulling from. “There’s a lot of data for the first time flying around across different firewalls. The potential for doing something wrong is really high,” he said. 
  • Technical issues related to the construction of the website. 

Chung, who is testifying in front of the House Oversight committee today, said these technical issues are the most frustrating. 

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“I have contended all along that this is not that difficult of a project,” he said. “It doesn’t provide health care, it doesn’t even provide insurance. It’s just a form to apply for a subsidy to get health insurance. It’s automating a paper form. It shouldn’t be that hard.” 

“Technically, this is not that difficult,” Chung added. “It shouldn’t cost more than $10 million. And it should be something that can be done in a couple of months.” 

According to both Chung and Nijhawan, even if the White House can build a functional website by the end of the month, new problems would appear almost immediately. 

“The idea that it would be perfect is never. All systems are never perfect. It’s never perfectly secure or functioning,” Chung said. “If you discovered hundreds of bugs on the initial launch, there are hundreds more or multiples of that that haven’t been discovered yet.” 

Nijhawan also touched on a problem that has yet to be widely addressed. He said the exchanges that are expected to allow insurance companies to share information with the federal government are not close to being ready. Without this information, CMS would not know who enrolled in the plans. 

“As soon as these enrollment issues get ironed out either by December or March, you have other issues relating to the back end, where there’s a lot of reconciliation that needs to be done between health care and CMS,” Nijhawan said.  

When asked why these exchanges weren’t completed before the rollout, he said, “They were trying to desperately get ready for the rollout.”  

The Fiscal Times' Brianna Ehley contributed to this report. 

Follow David Francis on Twitter @DavidcFrancis 

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