Healthcare.gov: Better, but not good enough

The White House said that Healthcare.gov would be working by November 30th. It is much better, but there's still a ways to go.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

The deadline is here. The White House had promised that the Web centerpiece of its new universal healthcare plan, Healthcare.gov, would be working properly by November 30th. It's not.

Healthcare.gov is much better, but it still has major problems. I've been stuck with this error message for hours.

Oh, don't get me wrong. Healthcare.gov is working much better. I surveyed my colleagues and many of them were able to make it through the Website, which had crashed and burned when it was first rolled out. Counting myself, eight out of ten people were able to make it through without trouble. I'm one of those who's still having problems with it

All of us found that the site was much faster than its previous snail-like pace that had greeted us when the site opened on October 1st. We also found that the site simply works better than in its previous incarnations. In our experiences pages no longer simply locked up never to move again.

That's all well and good but at the end of the day, we still found Healthcare.gov to be far too glitchy. We weren't the only ones. CNN reporters also ran into problems as well.

Some users, who had previously started applications found themselves still stalling out. One way around this, which was used by ZDNet's own Ed Bott, was to simply start a new application using another e-mail address.

In my case, I navigated my way through the system right up to the point where I could start looking for an insurance package. It was only then that the system told me I hadn't given it all the information it needed.

When I followed the site's instructions I found that I had never answered a question about whether my wife or I had ever used tobacco products. The reason I hadn't answered this query was that I had never been asked it.

After I answered it, the site still refuses to let me move further along. When I tried to take the next step it continued to refuse to see that I had now answered the tobacco question. Hours later, I'm still spinning my wheels with these pages.

Healthcare.gov is also telling me that "You have a notice available about your Marketplace eligibility." But, it's not giving me a way to read that notice. I'm guessing it's about the tobacco question, but I really have no idea.

I also found the site to be confusing, and I make my living in part by quickly understanding complex systems. I can see many people being utterly befuddled by the site.

Even if it did work perfectly, it has other problems: It doesn't appear to be robust enough to handle the load it's being asked to handle.

According to the Wall Street Journal, on November 2nd only 26,794 people have enrolled via Healthcare.gov. On December 1st, Jeffrey Zients, the man President Obama tasked to oversee the fixes reported that "the average system response time is under 1 second." On a Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend it did respond at that speed.

Zients also said "the error rate is "consistently well below 1 percent"; the online system is stable — not crashing — more than 90 percent of the time; as many as 50,000 shoppers can use the site at the same time, or up to 800,000 visits a day." A closer look reveals there's still a lot of work to be done.

According to the HealthCare.gov Progress and Performance Report (PDF Link), the "Per page system time outs or failures have been driven down from over 6 percent to well under 1 percent." To be exact, the failure rate, as of November 29th, was down to 0.75 percent per page. Think about that for a second, you have to go through dozens of pages for your application, and there's a 0.75 percent chance per page that something will go wrong. That's not good.

The site itself is now up, as of November 30th, 95.2 percent of the time. That would be unacceptable in any business Web site.

True, 800,000 sounds like a lot, but 48 million uninsured Americans must enroll by March 31st or face tax penalties. I find it hard to see a system that still crashing regularly on a daily basis being able to handle the load.

The government report ends with, "While we strive to innovate and improve our outreach and systems for reaching consumers, we believe we have met the goal of having a system that will work smoothly for the vast majority of users."

I don't think so.

Yes, the site is much better, but is it good enough? No, it's not. Healthcare.gov needs much more work before it reaches an acceptable level of performance.

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