Government admits to design flaws in healthcare.gov

Government admits to design flaws in healthcare.gov

Summary: It's day five and the usual experience with the new Federal healthcare exchange is one of failure. At least the government has admitted to defects in the design and implementation of the system.

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Here we are on day seven of healthcare.gov and the dominant story still seems to be that completed applications are presumed, but not proven to exist.

hcgov-v1
Waiting... (click for larger image)

Finally, the Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) admitted, in this report by the Wall Street Journal [paywalled], that flaws in the design both of the software and hardware for healthcare.gov needed to be fixed.

They'll have to move quickly. Remember, this is open enrollment for 2014, but if December 15, 2013 (the deadline for 2014 enrollment) comes and it's still not a good situation then the site has failed its mission.

I know I've tried since day one and failed. I've read many stories of friends and others who have tried and I've yet to meet anyone who has gotten all the way even to getting quotes, let alone completing an application.

CNBC cites insurance industry sources as saying that "as few as 1 in 100 applications on the federal exchange contains enough information to enroll the applicant in a plan," and that half the applications insurance companies are receiving are incomplete and cannot be processed further.

hcgov2-v2
Is that you? (click for larger image)

O'Reilly columnist James Turner, beat me to this article, asking "What Developers Can Learn From healthcare.gov". His first thought was mine: "It has become abundantly clear that the site was never stress-tested under anything like the type of load it is encountering."

In one news story I heard about the problems people are having, the "expert" said, "of course, they couldn't test it as millions of people trying it at the same time." Putting aside the assumption that it's really millions of people, of course they can test that.

There are lots of great tools and services (HP LoadRunner, RadView, Neustar, etc.) for simulating large traffic loads.

And healthcare.gov is hosted on an Akamai netblock. I have asked Akamai if they provide such services; I suspect that with a content delivery network (CDN) like Akamai, load testing is trickier than on a normal network. I haven't heard back from Akamai yet.

hcgov3
Helpful message (click or larger version)

Turner also noticed, as I did, that the application process seems segmented into various stages, and users are queued up for admission to each stage. It can be some time before you are brought to the correct page for the next stage. I've waited 15 or 20 minutes more than once. In a more intelligent system, the tasks in each stage could be broken up more so that progress could be made more steadily. If nothing else, this would make the user experience better.

He also notes that there are simple errors in the instructions. Usernames for the system must have numerals in them, which in itself is a debatable requirement, but the instructions don't say that they are required and the error message you get for not having them doesn't note the nature of the error. I've gotten this one, and was told simply that "larry.seltzer" was not an available username. At the time, I assumed that someone had already taken it.

hcgov4
Yes, we have no insurance today (click for larger image)

I feel safe concluding, both from the nature of the errors and from the fact that they're on Akamai that bandwidth is not the problem. This shouldn't be a bandwidth-intensive application anyway.

Could it be server resources? In the era of cloud computing, one of the things you can do is buy extra capacity for when you expect heavy traffic. One would think that they did this; if not, then they failed to account for perfectly predictable errors.

HHS gave a few large volume numbers for visitors to the site, but no numbers for successful applications. The evidence we've gotten for that is anecdotal and, in at least one case that got a lot of news attention, false.

hcgov5
Click for larger image

On Saturday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that the site would be taken down for hours at a time in the middle of the night on weekends for scheduled maintenance.

President Obama is asking us not to give up, but it's hard not to get frustrated when you can go through a long part of the process only to be terminated with an inexplicable error. And now that HHS has admitted to the design flaws, it makes perfect sense to give up until we hear that they've done a better job.

Can you imagine if Amazon.com or any other private web service launched with this level of service?

There simply wouldn't be any excuse for it.

Topics: Government US, Web development

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89 comments
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  • There simply wouldn't be any excuse for it.

    There simply isn't any excuse for it, none whatsoever. I do t know who was I volved with designing or implementing this site but whoever it was has failed miserably. It's doubtfull they will be able to get this mess to limp through the enrollment period. Maybe they can increase the resources (servers, databases, etc) a hundred fold but the design is probably not flexible enough to allow that. The government is incompetent as are the people that designed and built this site.
    greywolf7
    • ... so call or visit the office personally

      There is more than one way to skin this cat. You do NOT need to do it online. sounds like you are just complaining to be ... well ... complaining.
      Teako
      • Do you really think...

        Do you really think the offices are equipped to handle tens of millions of in-person applications being filed? This really is a big deal and not just trying to find something to complain about.
        joshandrebekah
      • Complaining?

        I suppose you did not realize that the offices do use the website to fill out the applications for the people that are signing up? These local offices are not able to access the site either. They have not been able to fill out the applications for millions of people over the past several days. The point is no matter how you try and apply it will not work. The system is failing as of right now.
        mitchell681
    • Too many Indians but No Chief

      We went through our similar process with California with much 1,000 smaller size than healthcare.gov
      "The government is incompetent as are the people that designed and built this site." Working with government is not easy, especially when ego and communication collides.
      Vendors spending most of their time to follow their leadership, guidance, and process. Input is little and never question your VIP customers.
      Vendors have more foreign engineers with H1B visas. Customers can barely understand but nods and nothing but yes.
      Everybody wants contract but nobody wants to put themselves in a middle and become scapegoats.
      Consulting firms are all about marketing talks and nice writing RFP but how don't know how to get it done right.
      We spending more time on paperwork than the actual works. Working hard but hardly work.
      As a result, delay project and overrun cost.
      Innovation comes from small companies and know how to get the job done right but they are too small. You do not want to put yourselves at risks, only follow the primary contractors and please customers.
      Netteligent
  • Not how to impress Generation Y

    There's widespread agreement that the success of the law depends on convincing young, healthy people to sign up. Such people are not impressed by poor implementation like this.

    Maybe a 1 year delay isn't such a bad idea.
    larry@...
    • There is some use for instant gratification after all

      Between having the attention span of a ferret on a double-espresso and having instant access to pretty much any information one wishes to obtain (except for what *really* happened in Benghazi, etc.), this is yet another indictment against a government that is big enough to give you anything.
      dferguson75@...
      • Knew it was coming

        I knew somebody was going to criticize the government as "too big." The problem is not the size of the government, it's its inefficiency. Make the government efficient, and you'll see that it becomes much smaller. The same reasoning applies to non-governmental organizations. Companies that are nimble are generally small.
        Eleutherios
        • This is a fair point

          Bottom line is government is too big to be efficient though, so they do go hand in hand. Reduce the size of government AND make it more efficient, both are needed here.
          cmwade1977
        • Eleutherios

          I completely agree with your statement. With all of the government waste we could fund several other programs, that would help many people, without breaking the bank. An 18 year old with a credit card would spend their money more wisely than the government does.
          For example: I use to work in the financial department of a company that would do various different contracting work for local governments. A local government would pay the company i worked for sixteen thousand dollars to put in high efficiency lighting in one building. This is a job that we would have only charged three thousand dollars for under ordinary circumstances.
          mitchell681
    • Nah!!!

      The one year delay is a pretty common practice to accomplish killing programs. It has been used often in the past. I think that is what is being tried once again. That and the possibility of the ACA actually working and people becoming accepting and happy with it is a political hot potato for one of the political parties.

      I can not think of anything new that was big in private or public enterprise that has ever worked perfectly the first time.
      Teako
      • It's what's needed....

        Killing the program would be the best thing for the country. The problem is how this is setup is unfair and unjust. Don't believe me? Then why did congress and the senate exempt themselves from it?
        cmwade1977
        • They did not exempt themselves

          Actually, the House and the Senate voted to *require* all members and their staffs to get insurance through the health insurance exchanges, rather than through the regular federal employee insurance programs. THis was supposed to be a "poison pill", inserted by the Republicans to kill the bill, but the Democrats went ahead and swallowed it anyway.
          keithparks
          • Incomplete answer...

            That is a synopsis of an oversimplification of the details.

            Feel free to post the corrections at media matters of the factcheck.org site which also oversimplified the language. THis explains the special treatment and why. Basically, Congress imposed a Cadillac plan tax on many, then carved out a special arrangement to provide taxpayer subsidized, not via the exchanges based on the income levels, but irrespective of their income levels, at a higher rate.

            The Obamacare law, which the Democrats unanimously supported, changed that. It says, in part, that the “only health plans” that members of Congress and their staff can pick are those that are created by the Obamacare law or offered through an exchange. The federal employees’ health care program is neither, so the effect is to kick them out of that program. The Obamacare law also says that employees who purchase their health insurance through an exchange “will lose the employer contribution (if any) to any health benefits plan offered by the employer.” So, the law doesn’t just kick them out, it threatens to take away their taxpayer-funded subsidy.

            The purpose of requiring the members of Congress and their staff to go through the exchanges for their health insurance was to make sure that the Obamacare law, like other laws, applied to the members of Congress just like it did to the American people. That principle remains good today. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he opposes an “Obamacare carve-out” because, “I don’t think members of Congress ought to be treated any differently in any way from anybody else in America.”

            President Obama and others in Congress, including unnamed staffers, disagree and want to continue to provide subsidies to the members of Congress and their staff. They just don’t want to be held accountable for doing so.

            So, the federal Office of Personnel Management stepped into the breach after being pushed by the President. It has proposed a rule that would require members of Congress and their staff to purchase their health care coverage through the exchanges and “clarify that the provisions that authorize an employer contribution” for health insurance coverage apply to coverage purchased through the exchanges. In other words, for the purpose of the subsidies, plans purchased by members of Congress and their staff through the exchanges will be treated like the plans other federal employees can get. They all get the employer-provided, taxpayer-funded subsidies; when he questioned Senator Cruz during the latter’s recent filibuster, Senator Durbin said that the subsidies covered as much as 72% of the cost of the premiums.

            http://spectator.org/archives/2013/10/03/obamacare-for-congress/print
            QAonCall
          • They did not exempt themselves

            YES They did exempt themselves the law allowed them to do it. but just recently last week I think it was the 3rd. they are required to purchase the two highest plans. typical they get the perks and we get the shaft again
            Kem Wills
          • They did not..................................................

            Total B.S. If you've done "any" research or for that matter "just watching the news" you would know that "THEY ARE IN FACT EXEMPT"!!BY WHO OR WHAT IS IMMATERIAL!

            THEY ARE OR HAVE BEEN GIVEN/ GRANTED AN EXEMPTION!!! Wake up from la, la land already!! Stop with the Kool-Aid and try some coffee!
            Disgruntled_MS_User
      • The ACA...

        Needs to be repealed, defunded, or whatever. Government has no business telling me I MUST buy health insurance.
        neverhome
        • No insurance? No health care.

          Plain and simple. No pay, no play. That's the conservative mantra, right? They just don't remember to say so during this imbroglio.
          spixleatedlifeform
    • No it's Not how to impress Generation Y

      It definitely is not a way to impress the younger generation, guarantee obama just lost a lot of youngsters that was going to sign up. And it is a vary good idea to wait a year duo to there are problems with the law that needs fixed before implementing completely on the people. The law is suppose to help people not hurt them, and I don't know anyone that has not been hurt by it one way or another. I don't know anyone that is signing up
      Kem Wills
  • This is government we are

    talking about. Why is anyone even remotely surprised?
    baggins_z